Elbow Fracture Open Reduction and Internal Fixation
What is elbow fracture open reduction and internal fixation?
Open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) is a type of surgery used to stabilize
and heal a broken bone. You might need this procedure to treat your broken elbow.
The elbow joint is a hinge type of joint composed of 3 bones. The humerus (the upper
arm bone) forms the joint with 2 bones of the forearm: the radius and the ulna. The
ulna forms the bony point of the elbow.
Different kinds of injury can damage any of the 3 bones that form the elbow joint.
This is especially common when you fall on an outstretched hand. The bone may fracture
into 2 or more pieces. In certain types of elbow fractures, your bone has broken,
but its pieces still line up correctly. In other types of fractures (displaced fractures),
the injury moves the bone fragments out of alignment.
If you fracture your elbow, you might need ORIF to bring your bones back into place
and help them heal. During an open reduction, orthopedic surgeons reposition your
bone pieces during surgery, so they are back in the right position. In a closed reduction,
a doctor moves the bones back into place without surgically exposing the bone.
Internal fixation refers to the method of reconnecting the bones. This might be done
with special screws, plates, wires, or nails that the surgeon places inside the bones
to fix them in the correct place. This prevents the bones from healing abnormally.
The surgery usually takes place while you are asleep under general anesthesia.
Why might I need an elbow fracture open reduction and internal fixation?
Certain medical conditions may make fracturing your elbow more likely. For example,
osteoporosis increases the risk of elbow fracture in many older adults.
Not everyone with a fractured elbow needs open reduction and internal fixation. In
fact, most people don’t. If possible, your doctor will treat your elbow fracture with
more conservative treatments, like pain medicine, splints, and slings.
You probably won’t need ORIF unless there is some reason your fracture might not heal
normally with these conservative treatments. You are likely to need ORIF if:
The pieces of your broken bone are severely out of position
Your broken bone pierced through your skin
Your bone broke into several pieces
In these cases, ORIF can place your bones back into the right position. This greatly
increases the chance that your bone will heal normally. You might need ORIF for a
fracture that occurs anywhere in your elbow joint, including the lower part of your
humerus and the upper parts of your radius or ulna.
What are the risks of an elbow fracture open reduction and internal fixation?
Most people do very well with ORIF for their elbow fracture. Although rare, complications
can occur. Possible complications include:
Joint stiffness (common)
Bone misalignment or failure to heal
Complications from anesthesia
Broken screws or plates
Arthritis of the joint (months to years later)
There is also a risk that the fracture won’t heal normally, and you’ll need a repeat
Your own risk of complications may vary according to your age, the anatomy of your
elbow fracture, and your other medical conditions. For example, people with low bone
mass or diabetes may be at greater risk of certain complications. Smokers may also
have an increased risk. Ask your doctor about the risks that most apply to you.
How do I get ready for an elbow fracture open reduction and internal fixation?
ORIF often takes place as an urgent procedure. Before your procedure, a healthcare
provider will ask about your medical history and give you a physical exam. You’ll
need an image of your elbow. This is done with an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI. Tell your
doctor about all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter ones like aspirin.
Also, let your doctor know the last time you ate.
In some cases, your doctors might do your ORIF a little later. If so, talk to your
doctor about how to prepare for the procedure. Ask whether you should stop taking
any medicines ahead of time, such as blood thinners. You’ll need to not eat or drink
after midnight the night before your procedure.
What happens during an elbow fracture open reduction and internal fixation?
Your doctor can help explain the details of your surgery. The details of your surgery
will depend on the location and severity of your injury. An orthopedic surgeon and
a team of specialized healthcare providers will do the surgery. The surgery may take
a couple of hours. In general, you can expect the below:
You will receive general anesthesia, so that you’ll sleep through the surgery and
won’t feel any pain or discomfort during the procedure. (Or, you may receive a local
anesthesia and a medicine to help you relax.)
A healthcare provider will carefully watch your vital signs, like your heart rate
and blood pressure. You may have a breathing tube inserted down your throat during
the surgery to help you breathe.
After cleaning the affected area, your surgeon will make an incision through the skin
and muscle of your elbow. (The site may vary according to the bone injured.)
Your surgeon will bring the pieces of your fractured bone or bones back into alignment
Next, your surgeon will secure the pieces of the broken bone to each other (fixation). To do this, he or she may use screws, metal plates, wires, or pins. (Ask what the
surgeon will use in your case.)
Your doctor will make any other necessary repairs.
After the surgeon has secured the bone, your surgeon will surgically close the layers
of skin and muscle around your elbow.
What happens after an elbow fracture open reduction and internal fixation?
Talk to your doctor about what you can expect after your surgery. You may have some
pain after your procedure, but pain medicine may help decrease it. You should be able
to go back to a normal diet quickly. You will likely get an imaging test done, like
an X-ray, to make sure the surgery was successful. Depending on the extent of your
injury and your other health conditions, you might be able to go home the same day.
For a while after your surgery, you’ll need to keep the arm immobile. Often, this
means you'll need to wear a splint for several weeks. Make sure to protect your splint
from water. You’ll receive instructions about how you can move your arm.
Your doctor might give you other instructions about caring for your arm, like applying
ice. Follow all your doctor’s instructions carefully. Your doctor might not want you
to take certain over-the-counter medicines for pain. This is because some of these
can interfere with bone healing. Your doctor may tell you to eat a diet high in calcium
and vitamin D as your bone heals.
You might see some fluid draining from your incision. This is normal. Let your doctor
know right away if:
You see an increase in redness, swelling, or draining from your incision
You have a high fever or chills
You have severe pain in your arm
You have a loss of feeling in the arm or hand
Make sure to keep all of your follow-up appointments. You may need to have your stitches
or staples removed a week or so after your surgery.
At some point, you may need physical therapy to restore strength and flexibility to
your muscles. Doing your exercises as prescribed can improve your recovery. Most people
are able to return to most of their normal activities within a few months.
Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:
The name of the test or procedure
The reason you are having the test or procedure
What results to expect and what they mean
The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
What the possible side effects or complications are
When and where you are to have the test or procedure
Who will do the test or procedure and what that person’s qualifications are
What would happen if you did not have the test or procedure
Any alternative tests or procedures to think about
When and how you will get the results
Who to call after the test or procedure if you have questions or problems
How much you will have to pay for the test or procedure