Elbow Joint Replacement

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Synonyms: total elbow arthroplasty, endoprosthetic elbow replacement

Unlike hip and knee joint replacements, which are performed thousands of times per year within the NHS, elbow joint replacement is a more recent and much less common operation. Although the number performed remains small it is regarded as a well established surgical procedure. However, not all orthopaedic units will perform this surgery.

The joint consists of two metal stems joined by a metal and plastic hinge. There has been very limited experience with allografts rather than artificial joints.[1]

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Joint replacement surgery is performed when other interventions, medical and surgical, will not offer a satisfactory outcome. Underlying pathology includes:

Amongst those who get severe damage to the elbows are haemophiliacs.[6] Osteoarthritis follows recurrent haemarthrosis. Anyone who has taken blood from a person with haemophilia will have noticed that extension of the elbow is usually well short of 180°.

Indication for operation can be summarised as severe pain with radiological changes of joint destruction in the presence of failed conservative treatment. The most common underlying pathology is RA. Before operation the disease process of the RA should be under control.

This is as for most surgery. PA and lateral X-rays of the joint are required and the usual blood tests are performed. In elderly patients the routine will include CXR and ECG. Those with haemophilia will need appropriate boosting of factor VIII.

  • The operation usually takes about one to two hours.
  • It is usually performed under general anaesthesia but regional anaesthesia with sedation can be employed.
  • An incision is made, usually on the dorsal side, to expose the elbow joint. The surgeon removes the lower end of the humerus and the upper end of the ulna, along with any damaged tissue. The surgeon then drills out a portion of the centre of the humerus and ulna and inserts one stem of the prosthesis into each. Usually, the prosthesis is cemented into place.
  • The two stems are joined with the hinge mechanism. The wound is closed, and a bandage is applied to splint the arm for stability. Some surgeons apply a plaster cast with the elbow extended, others with the elbow at 90°. The plaster cast is usually removed at 48 to 72 hours and gentle mobilisation is commenced.

There are risks attached to any form of surgery:

  • Haemorrhage.
  • Infection.
  • Thromboembolism - less common with upper limb surgery.

There are specific risks to this operation:

  • Nerve damage during surgery, especially the ulnar nerve.
  • Blood vessel damage during surgery.
  • Fracture of bone during surgery.
  • Dislocation of the prosthesis.
  • Loosening of the implant over time.
  • Allergic reaction to the implant.
  • Fracture of the prosthesis. This is uncommon but if it occurs, results of revision surgery are reasonably satisfactory.[9]

The patient will stay in hospital for about three or four days. A splint may be used after surgery to help stabilise the elbow.

  • Physiotherapy starts with gentle flexing exercises. Patients who have a splint typically start therapy a few weeks later than those who do not.
  • The patient will need help with everyday activities, such as driving, shopping, bathing, meal preparation, and household chores, for up to six weeks.
  • Some patients may begin to regain function of the elbow as soon as 12 weeks after surgery, although additional recovery can take up to a year.
  • The patient should not lift more than about 2.5 kg with the arm which has had the surgery, even when fully recovered.

There has been criticism of joint replacement surgery because of poor comparisons between the various types of prostheses that are commercially available. There is now a national joint register for England and Wales.[10] 

A comparison of three types of prosthesis found little to choose between them.[11] Some of the devices used for elbows have outcomes published for 5 to 10 years or longer.[12] 

The most commonly used unlinked (no linkage pin between the humeral and ulnar components) prostheses are Kudo and Souter-Strathclyde. The most commonly used linked prostheses are Coonrad-Morrey, Gschwend and Discovery implants.

A review of the English language literature on total elbow arthroplasties suggests that linked hinge implants restore a better arc of movement, may return a higher proportion of good and excellent results and may have a lower rate of radiological loosening. The rates of revision of linked hinges and unlinked devices is comparable at a mean follow-up of five years.[13] 

Elbow replacement surgery relieves pain for most patients.[7] 

Further reading & references

  1. Allieu Y, Marck G, Chammas M, et al; Total elbow joint allograft for long term posttraumatic osteoarticular loss. Follow-up results at twelve years. Rev Chir Orthop Reparatrice Appar Mot. 2004 Jun;90(4):319-28.
  2. Jenkins PJ, Watts AC, Norwood T, et al; Total elbow replacement: outcome of 1,146 arthroplasties from the Scottish Arthroplasty Project. Acta Orthop. 2013 Apr;84(2):119-23. doi: 10.3109/17453674.2013.784658. Epub 2013 Mar 14.
  3. Inagaki K; Current concepts of elbow-joint disorders and their treatment. J Orthop Sci. 2013 Jan;18(1):1-7. doi: 10.1007/s00776-012-0333-6. Epub 2013 Jan 11.
  4. Garcia JA, Mykula R, Stanley D; Complex fractures of the distal humerus in the elderly. The role of total elbow replacement as primary treatment. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 2002 Aug;84(6):812-6.
  5. Rolf O, Gohlke F; Endoprosthetic elbow replacement in patients with solitary metastasis resulting from renal cell carcinoma. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2004 Nov-Dec;13(6):656-63.
  6. Utukuri MM, Goddard NJ; Haemophilic arthropathy of the elbow. Haemophilia. 2005 Nov;11(6):565-70.
  7. Total Elbow Arthroplasty; Wheeless' Textbook of Orthopaedics
  8. Choo A, Ramsey ML; Total elbow arthroplasty: current options. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2013 Jul;21(7):427-37. doi: 10.5435/JAAOS-21-07-427.
  9. Athwal GS, Morrey BF; Revision total elbow arthroplasty for prosthetic fractures. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2006 Sep;88(9):2017-26.
  10. National Joint Registry
  11. Little CP, Graham AJ, Karatzas G, et al; Outcomes of total elbow arthroplasty for rheumatoid arthritis: comparative study of three implants. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2005 Nov;87(11):2439-48.
  12. Chafik D, Lee TQ, Gupta R; Total elbow arthroplasty: current indications, factors affecting outcomes, and follow-up results. Am J Orthop. 2004 Oct;33(10):496-503.
  13. Little CP, Graham AJ, Carr AJ; Total elbow arthroplasty: a systematic review of the literature in the English language until the end of 2003. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 2005 Apr;87(4):437-44.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Richard Draper
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
3898 (v25)
Last Checked:
Next Review:

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