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Radial head subluxation (nursemaid's elbow)

Brian R Moore, MD
Joan Bothner, MD
Section Editor
Anne M Stack, MD
Deputy Editor
James F Wiley, II, MD, MPH


Radial head subluxation (RHS, also called "nursemaid's elbow," "pulled elbow," and "annular ligament displacement") is a common elbow injury that is unique to young children. The diagnosis is usually readily apparent, particularly when the child has a typical mechanism of injury along with no focal findings on physical examination. The displacement is generally easy to reduce.

This topic will review radial head subluxation. Sports-related elbow injuries are discussed separately. (See "Elbow injuries in active children or skeletally immature adolescents: Approach".)


Radial head subluxation is the most common elbow injury in children [1-3]. It typically occurs between the ages of one and four years, with a peak incidence between two and three years [4,5], although cases have been reported in children younger than six months of age and as old as eight years [6]. Girls are more often affected than boys [4,5,7,8], and the left arm is more commonly affected than the right [5].


The usual mechanism of injury is axial traction on a pronated forearm with the elbow in extension. With sudden traction on the distal radius, a portion of the annular ligament slips over the head of the radius and slides into the radiohumeral joint, where it becomes trapped (figure 1) [9]. The symptoms that develop are the result of displacement of the annular ligament. By the age of five years, the annular ligament has become thick and strong and is unlikely to tear or be displaced.


History — The usual presenting complaint is that the child is not using the affected arm. The typical history is that the forearm was pulled while it was pronated and the elbow was extended. This often occurs as a parent or caregiver grabs the arm to prevent the child from falling or pulling away. Radial head subluxation (RHS) also can occur when a child is swung by the forearms or during play.


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Literature review current through: Aug 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 29, 2016.
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