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Nursemaid’s Elbow: Is My Child At Risk?

Just because nursemaid’s elbow—also referred to as pulled elbow or radial head subluxation—is a common childhood injury, doesn’t mean you’ve heard of it before. We spoke with J. Hunt Udall, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Banner Children’s Specialists Orthopedic Clinic, for his insight into this condition and how you can protect your child in the future.

What is Nursemaid’s Elbow?

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, a young child's ligaments—the strong tissues that attach bones—are not fully formed, meaning even a mild force on the joint may cause it to shift or cause it to partially dislocate.

“Children age 1-4 are at risk of this injury because the ligament involved in this injury is slightly weaker at this age,” explained Dr. Udall. “As the child grows, this ligament gets stronger, which means there is less of a chance of this injury occurring.”

Did I Do Something Wrong?

It can be easy to think that you’ve done something wrong when your pediatrician uses the term “pulled elbow” to describe your child’s injury, but Dr. Udall assured us that it is often caused accidentally by the parent or even by the child. “This condition is usually an inadvertent injury most commonly caused by traction of the arm when it is straight, such as pulling or tugging,” said Dr. Udall.

Nursemaid’s elbow often happens when a caregiver is saving a child from immediate danger, like stepping off a curb into the street. It can also occur during play, for example when an older child is swinging a young child around by their hands or arms. Dr. Udall offered guidelines to adhere to when trying to prevent nursemaid’s elbow, including:

  • safely lifting the child under the arms
  • not swinging the child by holding the hands or arms
  • avoid pulling or tugging on a child's hands or arms

While the unexpected and accidental nature of this condition could turn any caregiver into a lawnmower parent, Dr. Udall assured us not to worry. “The most important thing caregivers need to know about this condition is that management for this injury is simple and brief majority of the time,” said Dr. Udall. “There are typically no complications and the child experiences immediate relief.”

If you think your child has nursemaid’s elbow, don’t wait until the pain gets worse. Find a Banner Health expert who can help determine the cause of your child’s pain and coordinate the treatment they need to get back out there.

Orthopedics Children's Health