Which clinical history and physical findings are characteristic of radial head subluxation?

Updated: Apr 08, 2020
  • Author: Gretchen S Lent, MD; Chief Editor: Erik D Schraga, MD  more...
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Children are often brought for evaluation because they are not using the affected arm. Because these children often support the affected hand or wrist, caregivers may suspect wrist injury. An examination quickly rules out injury to these areas.

A child with a radial head subluxation usually is not in any distress. The affected arm is held semiflexed, adducted, and pronated (see the image below). [11] The lateral elbow may be mildly tender, and attempts to pronate or supinate the arm may cause pain. All other range of motion is often permitted.

In radial head subluxation, subluxated arm is held In radial head subluxation, subluxated arm is held semiflexed, adducted, and pronated.

No significant edema or effusion should be found on clinical examination. If focal swelling or other areas of tenderness are present, radiographs should be performed. The examiner should keep in mind that fractures, especially supracondylar ones, can be mistaken for simple subluxations. [12]

As a rule, if there is no history of significant trauma and if no deformity or local tenderness (other than that at the radial head) is noted, radiographs are not necessary. [13] When radiography is performed, the radiographs of the subluxated radial head are typically normal; however, they can sometimes demonstrate subtle discontinuity of the radius and capitellum along a straight line. [14] The positioning required to take proper radiographs often reduces the radial head into place.

Ultrasonography can also be used to demonstrate displacement of the cartilaginous radial head away from the capitellum. [15] Arthrography is useful for detecting occult subluxations in children with other operative injuries of the elbow. [16]

As with any injury, neurologic and vascular status should be documented both before and after manipulation.

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