High risk of arm injuries
Ligaments are the elastic-like bands that hold bones together and, as these are still loose in children aged up to about five years, a sudden pull or bump to a child’s arm can cause a partial dislocation of the elbow. This happens when the ligament in the elbow slips into the elbow joint and gets stuck there.
This condition, known as pulled elbow, usually happens when a child’s outstretched arm is tugged or pulled, but it can also be caused by a fall or when the child rolls over in an awkward way in a cot, for instance, or on the floor.
By far the most common cause, however, is the hand, wrist or arm being tugged or pulled by another person, which is the why the condition is also commonly called ‘nursemaid’s elbow’ or ‘babysitter’s elbow’. The technical term is actually ‘radial head subluxation’, which sounds very scary and serious, however it’s very common in the under-five age group.
Some children have particularly loose joints so are more likely than others to get a pulled elbow. It can happen more than once and, if your child has suffered a pulled elbow, they are more likely to have the same injury again, especially in the month or so after the first injury.
A pulled elbow causes pain at the time it happens, and the baby will usually cry out and then not want to use their arm, which may just hang by their side.
Treatment and recovery
Sometimes the ligament will become unstuck by itself, but usually a healthcare professional will gently move the arm in a way that will put the ligament back into place. An X-ray isn’t usually needed unless there is the possibility of another injury like a fracture. A pulled elbow will not cause any long-term damage and, once the ligament is back where it should be, your children are usually quite comfortable and able to use their arm normally. If the elbow was partially dislocated for quite a while, however, pain medicine may be needed for a day or two.
Always use care when holding your child’s hand, wrist or arm. When picking up your child, make sure you have your hands under their armpits, and never pull them up by the hands. It doesn’t mean you can’t play swinging games; you can still pick them up and swing them around in a circle, but just make sure you’re holding them the right way, and those little arms and elbows will be kept safe from harm.