Elbow Joint Replacement Surgery

During elbow joint replacement surgery, a surgeon will remove damaged tissue and bone within the elbow joint and replace the damaged parts with an artificial elbow joint. This procedure is used to decrease elbow pain and disability.

Elbow joint replacement surgery is performed to restore mobility and repair severe damage within the elbow joint. This damage may be caused by a variety of factors, including osteoarthritis, fractures, tumors or tissue tears. Patients with these conditions often experience pain, stiffness and an inability to use the arm during regular activity.

During the surgery, damaged cartilage and portions of the ulna and the humerus, two arm bones that meet at the elbow joint, are removed. The cartilage normally acts as a cushion between the bones of the joint, and when it is worn away or damaged there may be direct contact and friction between the bones.

Once all the necessary tissue and bone have been removed from the elbow joint, the artificial joint is inserted. The artificial joint is composed of two implants attached to the insides of both the humerus and ulna, then joined together using bone cement and a metal hinge.

Reasons for Elbow Joint Replacement Surgery

Elbow joint replacement surgery is generally considered a last resort form of treatment, reserved mainly for severely damaged or extremely painful elbow joints. Most often, elbow joint replacement is performed on patients who are over the age of 50. Elbow joint replacement surgery may be necessary due to the following conditions:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Post-traumatic arthritis, a form of arthritis that may occur after a serious elbow injury or surgery, which results in pain and limited elbow function
  • Acute fractures of the upper or lower arm, located near the elbow
  • Tumors
  • Tissue tears

The Elbow Joint Replacement Procedure

Elbow joint replacement surgery is typically performed in a hospital setting with the patient under general anesthesia. It generally takes approximately 2 hours to complete. To gain access to the elbow joint, the surgeon will make an incision at the back of the elbow. After insertion of the surgical instruments, the muscles and other tissues of the joint are gently moved aside to reach the affected bones of the elbow. Once scar tissue and any bone spurs within the joint have been removed, the humerus is prepared for fitting to the artificial implant that will replace that side of the joint. The same preparation work will also be performed for the ulna.

The artificial joints are then positioned in the joint along the humerus and ulna. They are affixed to the bones with surgical cement and a hinge pin. The wound is closed with sutures and covered by a protective dressing, which will be worn until the incision has healed. Some patients may also require the placement of a temporary tube in the joint, which can help properly drain any surgical fluid. The tube will be removed a few days after the surgery.

Risks of Elbow Joint Replacement Surgery

Elbow joint replacement surgery is performed successfully on thousands of patients each year, but there are several potential complications associated with the procedure. Some of the most common risks of elbow joint replacement surgery include:

  • Infection
  • Blood clots
  • Nerve damage
  • Continued instability of the joint
  • Pain
  • Allergic reaction to the material of which the artificial joint is made
  • Loosening or fracture of the artificial joint

Certain existing health conditions and lifestyle habits, such as smoking or frequent consumption of alcohol, may increase the patient's risk of developing post-surgical complications.

Recovery from Elbow Joint Replacement Surgery

After undergoing elbow joint replacement surgery, patients typically need to take part in a physical therapy program to help restore strength and increase the range of motion in the elbow. Certain activities, including contact sports and lifting heavy weights, should be avoided for about 12 weeks following surgery. A full recovery may take up to a year, and some patients may never regain the same quality of elbow function they had prior to the injury or disease that damaged the joint. Most patients, however, will notice a significant reduction in pain and a considerable improvement in elbow function after surgery.

Have a Question?

  • American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
  • American Association for Hand Surgery
  • American Academy Of Orthopaedic Surgeons
  • The American Board of Pediatrics