My Weird Elbow

February 17, 2012

In September 1990 I joined a karate dojo, and sometime in the spring or early summer of 1992 I took part in a demo for a women’s group. During the demo I was thrown and landed badly on a concrete floor. Instead of slapping the floor with my right hand, I slapped the floor with my entire forearm. My elbow was sore for several days. About a week later, as near as I remember, I had dinner with a couple I was friends with and when he shook my hand there was a popping in my elbow and a sharp burning pain.

By the next morning I was hardly able to move my arm. I didn’t have a primary care physician at the time so I took it to my chiropractor. He treated the injury like a sprain or strain and used ultrasound to help it. Later we rehabilitated it with electric stimulation. At the time we did the ultrasound he explained that if I’d broken or fractured my elbow at all we’d know immediately. Apparently fractures and ultrasound don’t get along.

The result of this series of injuries to my elbow has been two-fold. First, I can’t straighten my arm. I get about 95% of the way there and it just stops. Second, the ulnar nerve, what people call their “funny bone” is displaced from its channel. There’s a notch in the outside of the bend of your elbow where this nerve is located. On my left arm the nerve is recessed, on my right arm it is outside of the notch. It feels like a thick cord under the skin.

Other than some really impressive pops sometimes when I straighten my arm it hasn’t bothered my much in the last 20 years. I’ve grown used to it not being straight.

Just under two weeks ago, while pulling myself up from a reclined reclining chair, there was a sharp pain in my right forearm, just about an inch below the creases on the inside of my arm, dead center in the mass of tendons that start at the elbow. Within a few minutes there was a reddish bruise there and my arm was very sore. For the next couple of days I wasn’t able to straighten it at all – not even to the reduced limit I normally have – and I wasn’t able to bend it enough to touch my head.

I iced it and used Motrin and Aleve to reduce the pain and fight any swelling. Over the course of the first week it got better and the red mark disappeared. This week the improvement has stopped however. My range of motion is still reduced at both ends – not as straight as normal, and not able to fully bend it.

This afternoon I saw the doctor and she promptly took an x-ray of the joint. Within a couple minutes she came into the room, carrying the x-ray films saying, “You’ve got a weird elbow.” So weird in fact that she showed the films to her partner in the practice.

The bone in your upper arm is called the humerus and the lower end has two knobs know as epicondyles. The medial (inner) and lateral (outer). On the x-ray of my elbow there is a very clear curved line above these processes that shouldn’t be there. My doctor’s best guess is that this is a congenital feature that I’ve had my entire life. The upshot of the x-rays is that I’m going to get an appointment to see the orthopedist.

I’ve annotated the second copy of each image below to highlight the arthritis calcifications and the mystery feature.

An image of my right elbow

An image of my right elbow bent

An image of my right elbow straightened

An image of my right elbow straightened

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.