Olecranon fracture

Last revised by Henry Atkinson on 10 Dec 2023

Olecranon fractures are clinically and radiographically obvious, and usually require open reduction and internal fixation.

Olecranon fractures occur as the result of one of four mechanisms 2:

  1. direct blow (or fall directly on the elbow)

  2. fall on outstretched hand with elbow flexed

  3. avulsion fracture - e.g. triceps bony avulsion

  4. stress fracture, e.g. throwing athletes and gymnasts

It is important to remember that the ulnar nerve is closely related to the medial aspect of the olecranon and, although not common, nerve injury may complicate these fractures 2.

Olecranon fractures are easy to diagnose provided a lateral x-ray of the elbow is obtained. They appear as a lucency usually reaching the trochlear groove articular surface and are, in most cases, displaced.

Radiology reports should not only include whether or not a fracture is present but also comment on:

Due to the unopposed traction of the triceps muscle, these fractures are usually widely displaced and require open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) 1. Non-operative treatment can be considered for undisplaced fractures or patients with significant medical co-morbidities 2. Union rates with appropriate treatment are very high (~99%) and other than a slight reduction in flexion and extension at the elbow, function is preserved 1,2.

Unlike many other intra-articular fractures, olecranon fractures result in relatively little secondary osteoarthritic changes, probably on account of most fractures occurring through a relatively non-articular part of the trochlear groove 1.

Most of the symptoms relate to prominence of hardware given the little overlying soft tissues 1.

Occasionally ulnar nerve injury can result in long-term sensory and motor impairment, most marked in the hand.

There is usually little differential, especially in adults, and when the clinical presentation is that of trauma to the elbow with pain, swelling and lack of mobility. In young patients, one must consider unfused olecranon epiphysis 3. Extremely rarely it can mimic a patella cubiti.

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