Elbow replacement

What is an elbow replacement?

An elbow replacement is usually needed due to arthritis resulting in joint pain, stiffness and wear and tear. Once the operation is complete, you should have less pain and find it easier to move.

What does elbow replacement surgery involve?

Elbow replacement surgery is carried out in hospital under general anaesthetic and local anaesthetic is injected into your elbow at the end of the operation so you wake up with no or little pain. You would normally be admitted the evening before the operation if your operation is in the morning or early on the day if your operation is scheduled for the afternoon or the evening. This allows you time to settle in and be prepared.

You will not be able to eat for eight hours prior to surgery although you will be able to drink small amounts of water up to four hours before.
The operation itself takes around 90 minutes and your surgeon will make a cut at the back of your elbow, remove the damaged surfaces, and replace these with an artificial elbow joint made of metal, plastic, ceramic, or a combination of these. The elbow replacement is then fixed to the bone with an acrylic cement and your surgeon will close the skin with stitches or clips.

Afterwards your ankle will be tightly bandaged to help minimise swelling and fine drainage tubes may also be left in for up to 48 hours.

Elbow replacement surgery recovery time

You are likely to stay in hospital for three to five days after the operation. Your physiotherapists will help you start moving and bending the elbow, usually a couple of days after the operation.

You will need to use a support for the elbow for around six weeks and regular exercise should enable you to return to normal activities as soon as possible.

Most people will make a good recovery, have less pain and be able to move their elbow better. However, you should be aware that an artificial elbow will not feel the same as a normal elbow. You can expect to bend the elbow to 120 degrees but it is unlikely you will be able to fully straighten it.

What risks should I know about?

Elbow replacement surgery is one of the most successful operations but there are some potential complications you should be aware of. These affect a very small percentage of patients.

  • Infection can occur although our theatres have ultra-clean air operating conditions keeping infection rates to the minimum.
  • Blood clots are possible with any joint replacement operation. They are more common in patients with some pre-existing medical conditions. However, again they affect a very small percentage of patients and have well established treatments including aspirin.
  • Very rarely, damage to the nerves around the elbow leading to weakness, numbness or pain in the arm and hand - this usually settles on its own. 

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