Humerus Medial Epicondyle Fractures

Key Points:


Medial epicondyle fractures may be associated with intra-articular incarceration of the displaced apophyseal fragment, elbow dislocation, ulnar nerve injury, and other upper extremity fractures. Good outcomes have been achieved with non-operative treatment for minimally displaced fractures, despite a high rate of nonunion (Pathy, 2015; Gottschalk, 2012; Farsetti, 2001).  In patients with displaced fractures, fixation yields stability, functional range of motion, and the ability to return to previous activity levels, including sports (Gottschalk, 2012; Patel, 2012; Haxhija, 2006; Bulut, 2005; Fowles, 1990). Complications may include stiffness, instability, deformity, superficial wound infection, and symptomatic nonunion. Competitive sports participation and increased functional and athletic demands of the pediatric and adolescent populations have resulted in new treatment controversies; including the reliability of measuring fracture displacement on radiographs, indications for operative treatment, and outcomes of operative and non-operative treatment.


Fractures of the medial epicondyle of the distal humerus account for approximately 12-20% of all pediatric elbow fractures and occur most frequently between the ages of 9 and 14 (Beaty, 2005). These fractures are four times more common in boys.  They are associated with elbow dislocation in 50% of children and incarceration of the medial epicondyle fragment within the elbow joint occurs in 15-18% of children (Beaty, 2005). Associated ulnar nerve dysfunction, most often transient, has been reported in 10-16% of patients (Beaty and Wilkens Editor, 2005; Patel, 2012).

Clinical Findings:

The medial epicondyle ossification center is the second ossification center to appear at the distal humerus, at 5 to 7 years of age, and is the last distal humerus ossification center to fuse at 15-20 years old (Pathy, 2015; Beaty, 2005).  The medial epicondyle is an apophysis on the posterior-medial aspect of the distal humerus that serves as the origin of the flexor-pronator muscle mass and the primary origin of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). Injuries causing excessive traction on these structures may result in an epicondylar avulsion fracture (Pathy, 2015; Gottschalk, 2012; Beaty, 2005). In younger children, part of the joint capsule can extend up to the apophyseal line. In older children, as the distal humeral epiphysis enlarges with growth, the medial epicondyle is positioned more proximally and the fracture is typically extra-articular (Beaty, 2005). The ulnar nerve enters the cubital tunnel posterior to medial epicondyle and rests on the fibro-osseous surface directly posterior to the apophysis.

Imaging Studies:

Anteroposterior (AP), lateral, and internal oblique plain radiographs of the elbow are recommended in diagnosing medial epicondyle fractures. If a significant effusion exists, one must have a high index of suspicion for an elbow dislocation or additional fractures around the elbow (Beaty, 2005). Elbow dislocations frequently reduce spontaneously, prior to presentation for medical attention. If the medial epicondyle appears at the level of the joint or is absent at its normal position, it should be suspected to be incarcerated within the joint (Gottschalk, 2012; Dodds, 2014).  Failure to recognize intra-articular entrapment of the epicondyle (Figure 1) can result in significant restriction of motion (Beaty, 2005).
The oblique view can be particularly useful as the direction of displacement (commonly anterior and distal) is often out of plane from the standard AP and lateral views.
Much of the controversy regarding medial epicondyle fractures relates to acceptable displacement. Variable intra-observer agreement with regard to measurement of displacement of medial epicondyle fractures, with low overall agreement has been reported (Pappas, 2010). Authors noted improved inter-observer agreement on the AP view but stated that agreement was still low overall. CT to evaluate the true displacement of medial epicondyle fractures has recently been evaluated.  Even in minimally displaced fractures, CT scans have demonstrated up to 1 cm of anterior displacement that was unrecognized on standard radiographic views (Edmonds, 2010). A recent cadaveric study suggested use of a distal humerus axial view.  It has been shown to have significant intra-observer correlation and allows the surgeon reproducible evaluation of displacement at significantly reduced radiation load to the patient (Souder, 2015).

Fig. 1 Medial epicondyle fracture with incarceration of the fragment in the elbow joint

Fig. 2 Medial epicondyle fracture associated with elbow dislocation

Fig. 3 Displaced medial epicondyle fracture


Treatment of pediatric humeral medial epicondyle fractures is controversial.  Traditionally, these fractures have been managed non-operatively; often with a long arm cast for 3-4 weeks with the elbow flexed to 90°, with some advocating immobilizing the forearm in pronation. Nonsurgical management of elbow dislocations and of severely displaced medial epicondyle fractures have been reported historically to yield results similar to those of surgery, even when healed with fibrous union (Pathy, 2015; Gottschalk, 2012; Farsetti, 2001; Patel, 2012).
Surgical fixation has been recommended in the following settings: open fracture, fragment incarceration (Figure 1), concurrent elbow dislocation (Figure 2), fracture displacement >5 mm (Figure 3), and fractures in upper extremity athletes (Pathy, 2015; Gottschalk, 2012; Patel, 2012; Bulut, 2005; Fowles, 1990; Louahem, 2010).
Various techniques for reduction of an incarcerated fragment have been described, including use of an Esmarch elastic bandage to compress the soft tissues toward the fracture site to assist in the reduction (Louahem,  2010), and utilizing the Roberts maneuver (Gottshcalk, 2012; Beaty and Wilkens Ed., 2005).  The Roberts maneuver consists of applying a valgus stress on the elbow, with forearm supination and extension of the wrist and fingers, to utilize muscle forces in an attempt to extract the intra-articular fragment (Beaty, 2005). 
Options for surgical fixation include sutures, Kirschner wires (K-wires), cannulated screws, and excision of the fragment with advancement of the medial soft tissues (Namath, 2009; Pathy, 2015; Gottschalk, 2012; Patel, 2012; Bulut, 2005; Fowles, 1990).  Suture fixation is typically used only for very small or comminuted fragments. K-wires are used if the fragment is too small to accept a screw, typically in younger children. When using cannulated screws, the use of a washer can help increase surface area for compression (and thus better distribute the compressive force of the screw), avoid screw head comminution of the fragment, and prevent screw migration (Pathy 2015).
As the medial epicondyle is a posterior structure, the screw is typically oblique, directed from medial to lateral, and from posterior to anterior up the medial column. Care should be taken to avoid implant placement in the olecranon fossa that could result in implant impingement and loss of extension (Patel, 2012; Gottschalk, 2012).  Typically, a 3.5 or 4.0 mm partially threaded cannulated screw is used. Because of the compression gained from the partial threads, the screw does not need to be bicortical (Pathy, 2015).  Bicortical drilling or fixation may place the radial nerve at risk for injury along the distal third of the humerus. Surgeons may consider prone positioning for surgical fixation of displaced fractures.  Positioning of the arm with the patient prone allows the elbow to be flexed with pronation of the forearm and relative varus of the elbow.  This allows reduction without excessive traction on the fragment (Glotzbecker, 2012).


The three most common complications with treatment of medial epicondyle fractures of thehumerus are loss of motion, cubitus valgus and bony nonunion (Gottschalk, 2012; Beaty, 2005).  Nonunion following nonoperative treatment of medial epicondyle fractures is common, but may be asymptomatic (Louahem, 2010; Pathy, 2015).

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Top Contributors:

Indranil Kushare, MBBS, DNB
Allan Beebe, MD