Total Elbow Replacement

The elbow is a hinge joint consisting of three bones. The upper part of the hinge is at the end of the upper arm bone (humerus), and the lower part of the hinge is at the top of the two forearm bones (radius and ulna) which are side by side. When the elbow is bent, the ends of the two forearm bones rub against the end of the humerus.

Bones of Elbow Joint

In a healthy elbow joint, the surfaces of these bones are very smooth and covered with a tough protective tissue called cartilage. Arthritis causes damage to the bone surfaces and cartilage where the three bones rub together. These damaged surfaces eventually become painful.

Arthritic Elbow Joint Surfaces

There are many ways to treat the pain caused by arthritis. One way is total elbow replacement surgery. The decision to have total elbow replacement surgery should be made very carefully after consulting your doctor and learning as much as you can about the elbow joint, arthritis, and the surgery.

In total elbow replacement surgery, an artificial hinge made of metal and a very durable plastic material is inserted into the joint so that the elbow can move without allowing the two forearm bones to contact the humerus. We call this artificial hinge an “implant.

Getting to the Joint

The patient is first taken into the operating room and given anesthesia. After the anesthesia has taken effect, the skin around the elbow is thoroughly scrubbed and sterilized with an antiseptic liquid. A tourniquet is then applied to the upper portion of the arm to help slow the flow of blood.

An incision about six inches long is then made over the elbow joint. The incision is gradually made deeper through muscle and other tissue until the bones of the elbow joint are exposed.

Preparing the Bones

One of the forearm bones, the ulna, has a projection at the end, which extends up and behind the end of the humerus. A special power saw is used to remove part of this projection.

A second purpose of the preoperative therapy visit is to prepare you for your upcoming surgery. You will begin to practice some of the exercises you will use just after surgery.

Attaching the Implants

The elbow implant consists of two metal stems that are connected by a metal locking pin. This pin passes through the ends of both stems, which are lined with a strong plastic material, serving as a bearing that allows the elbow to bend. The stems are inserted into each of the two prepared canals. A special kind of cement for bones is first injected into the canals to help hold the stems in place.

When the cement is hard, the two implant parts are brought together and the pin is inserted to connect them.

Closing the Wound

If necessary, the surgeon may adjust the ligaments that surround the elbow to achieve the best possible elbow function.

When all of the implants are in place and the ligaments are properly adjusted, the surgeon sews the layers of tissue back into their proper position. A plastic tube may be inserted into the wound to allow liquids to drain from the site during the first few hours after surgery. The edges of the skin are then sewn together, and the elbow is wrapped in a sterile bandage. Finally, the patient is taken to the recovery room.