Why Elbow Replacements Are More Common Than Ever (Hint: It’s Not Just for Arthritis Anymore)

Who is a candidate and how you can expect your mobility to change

A growing population of older adults may be partly responsible for an increase in elbow replacement surgeries for fractures of the bone near the elbow. Why? It’s because older adults are more likely than younger people to break a bone from a fall, including the lower end of the upper arm bone (called the distal humerus).

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“In the past, the No. 1 reason for elbow replacement surgery was inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis,” says orthopaedic surgeon Steven Maschke, MD. Improved drug treatment for these conditions now means that fewer people end up with severe joint damage that requires surgery.

More recently, candidates for elbow replacement have expanded to people with osteoarthritis and those with distal humerus fractures. But the larger of these two groups are those with fractures, as osteoarthritis in the elbow is relatively uncommon.

Elbow replacements were originally developed for those with RA

Elbow replacement was originally developed for people with rheumatoid arthritis. With this autoimmune disease, the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue — primarily the tissue lining the joints. It usually affects multiple joints, which may include the elbows, causing pain, swelling and stiffness. If symptoms become severe and cannot be relieved with nonsurgical measures, elbow replacement becomes an option.

The more common type of arthritis — osteoarthritis — results from the deterioration of cartilage (which cushions the ends of bones in joints and creates a smooth gliding surface for movement), causing pain, swelling and stiffness. Weight-bearing joints, such as the hips and knees, are most susceptible.

Osteoarthritis can develop in the elbow, but it’s most likely to affect people who have had a traumatic injury to the elbow or who put excess pressure on their elbows. They may include heavy machine operators, weightlifters and some athletes.

Nonsurgical measures are used to treat osteoarthritis, regardless of the affected joint. If pain and diminished mobility in the elbow become severe, a last resort is an elbow replacement.

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Today’s more common use: Fixing fractures

The third and growing reason for elbow replacement is a distal humerus fracture. The upper arm bone can break near the elbow from a sudden trauma, such as a car accident. But in older adults who have weaker bones and possibly osteoporosis, the humerus can break in this location from a simple fall. With the aging of the population, the rate of bone fractures is going up, including those involving he humerus.

Distal humerus fractures are challenging to treat. They almost always require surgery.

In older adults, the bone quality may not be good enough for the traditional method of using plates and screws to fix broken bones in place. In addition, the fracture may be too complex for this to work.

Research shows that older adults with a distal humerus fracture often do better with a total elbow replacement than with repairing a fracture with plates and screws.

Understanding limitations after elbow replacement

That said, elbow replacement isn’t for everyone. “The main limitation of elbow replacement surgery is the permanent lifting restriction of not more than seven pounds,” says Dr. Maschke. In addition, the implants aren’t likely to hold up for the several decades that would be necessary if used in a younger adult. For these reasons, elbow replacement surgery generally is reserved for older adults who don’t need to lift heavy items.

Elbow replacement can be done two ways — linked and unlinked. In the United States, the linked implant is more common. A metallic stem is anchored inside the humerus (upper arm bone) and another is inserted in the ulna (one of two bones in the forearm). They are cemented in place. The two stems are connected with a hinge in the elbow.

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The downside of a linked implant is the hinge, which is somewhat floppy, can stretch and cause the implant to loosen. This is the reason for the restriction against lifting anything too heavy.

With an unlinked implant, the two stems are inserted (one in the humerus and the other in the ulna) without the hinge. They are held in place by the ligaments, muscles, and other structures of the elbow. These tissues must be in good condition for this to work well. Otherwise, it can become unstable. Physical therapy to strengthen the muscles and ligaments is critical for joint stability.

Implants only continue improving

Implant designs continue to evolve and improve. A relatively new innovation is a convertible implant, which is unlinked when first put in. If it becomes unstable later on, it can be revised and turned into a linked implant by adding a hinge without having to replace the entire implant.

Even newer designs under development are partial replacements. For example, just a component that fits in the humerus is inserted. The hope with these is they won’t require the same lifting restriction. And they might work for a younger, more active person who puts higher demands on the joint.

This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Arthritis Advisor.

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