Your toddler might squeal with delight when a playful family member picks him up by the wrists and swings him around, or when you pull him up by his hands to help him jump over a puddle.
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But be careful – lifting or grabbing a child by the arms can result in a common injury called nursemaid’s elbow, or pulled elbow.
It occurs when a bone in a child’s lower arm becomes partially dislocated at the elbow joint, causing sudden pain around the elbow.
“It’s a benign problem, but it is painful for the child,” says pediatric orthopedic surgeon Ryan Goodwin, MD. “The child might cry or hold their elbow because it hurts.”
Nursemaid’s elbow tends to happen most often to kids between the ages of 2 and 5 years old, whose bones and ligaments are still immature.
The good news is, there’s a simple maneuver that can get the elbow back in place. But Dr. Goodwin stresses that you shouldn’t try it at home unless you’re totally confident that your child’s pain is truly caused by nursemaid’s elbow.
How do you know it’s nursemaid’s elbow?
The most obvious sign is that the pain starts after the child has been pulled or lifted by the arms. Nursemaid’s elbow is not usually caused by a fall, so if your child complains of elbow pain after falling, seek medical attention, as it may be a fracture or broken bone.
You also likely won’t see any visual signs of an injury, like swelling or a deformity. These too warrant more immediate medical attention.
“If there’s any question at all whether it’s nursemaid’s elbow or not, seek medical care and get an X-ray for the child,” Dr. Goodwin advises.
Nursemaid’s elbow reduction
If you’re certain that your child’s pain was caused by a pulled elbow, this maneuver might be able to stop the pain:
- Hold the child’s arm out and cradle the elbow in one hand.
- Turn the arm so that the palm faces upward toward the ceiling.
- Flex the elbow so that the palm of their hand touches their shoulder.
If your child is in too much pain to tolerate this, or if it does not work, it’s time to see a doctor.
But, if that relieves the pain, then your child should be able to about their day without further pain or complications.
“The challenge becomes, once it happens to a child, it’s likely to happen again,” Dr. Goodwin says. “But kids will usually grow out of it by age 5 or 6.”