Elbow Replacement Surgery

If you have arthritis in the elbow, there are ways of treating it.

What is arthritis to the elbow?

Arthritis is a group of conditions that cause damage to one or more joints. The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis where there is gradual wear and tear of a joint. Some other types of arthritis are associated with inflammation of the joints that can eventually lead to severe joint damage. Arthritis eventually wears away the normal cartilage covering the surface of the joint and the bone underneath becomes damaged. This causes pain and stiffness in the joint, which can interfere with normal activities.

What are the benefits of surgery?

You should get less pain and be able to move your arm more easily.

Are there any alternatives to surgery?

Simple painkillers such as paracetamol and anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen can help control the pain of arthritis. A steroid injection into your elbow joint can sometimes reduce pain and stiffness for several months.

Sometimes it is possible to have a smaller operation to remove inflamed tissue from your elbow joint (synovectomy). All these measures become less effective if your arthritis gets worse and this is when your surgeon may recommend an elbow replacement.

What does the procedure involve?

Various anaesthetic techniques are possible. The operation usually takes 1 to 2 hours. Your surgeon will make a cut on the back of your elbow and remove the damaged joint surfaces. They will replace these with an artificial elbow made with metal, plastic or ceramic, or a combination of these materials. Your elbow replacement is fixed into the bone using acrylic cement.

What complications can happen?

Like all surgical procedures, there are some levels of risks to consider. Some of these can be serious and can even cause death. However, you can speak to your doctor about the following general and specific complications that may worry you.

General complications of any operation

  • Pain
  • Bleeding
  • Infection of the surgical site (wound)
  • Unsightly scarring of your skin
  • Chest infection
  • Blood clot in your leg
  • Blood clot in your lung
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke

Specific complications of this operation

  • Damage to nerves around your elbow
  • Infection
  • Loosening
  • Dislocation of your elbow replacement
  • Fracture (break) around your elbow replacement
  • Severe pain

How soon will I recover?

You should be able to go home after 2 to 5 days. You will need to use a support for your elbow for 6 weeks. Regular exercise should help you to return to normal activities as soon as possible. Before you start exercising, ask the healthcare team or your GP for advice.

Most people make a good recovery, have less pain, and can move their elbow better. An artificial elbow never feels quite the same as a normal elbow. An elbow replacement can wear out with time.

Summary

An elbow replacement is usually suitable for people who have arthritis. If you have severe pain, stiffness and disability, an elbow replacement should reduce your pain and help you to move your arm more easily. To find out more, call us on 0808 101 0337.

Acknowledgements

Author: Prof Adam Watts MBBS FRCS (Tr. & Orth.)

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