Different methods of manipulation for reducing pulled elbow in young children

What is pulled elbow?

Pulled elbow is a dislocation of the elbow joint in a young child which is often caused by an adult, or taller person, suddenly pulling or tugging on the child's arm when it is straight, or when a child pulls away from an adult impulsively. It can also be caused by a fall or twist. The child immediately complains of pain and cannot use his or her arm.

How is it treated?
Treatment usually consists of manipulating the arm to get the bones of the elbow back into their correct position. It is usually treated by manual intervention. There are two typical manoeuvres, supination and pronation. In supination, the forearm is twisted or rotated outwards (palm of child’s hand faces upwards), sometimes followed by bending of the elbow (flexion). While this is often used, it is not always successful. In pronation, the forearm is twisted or rotated inwards (palm of child’s hand faces downwards). Both methods are generally safe, although bruising can occur and they can be painful.

Results of the search

We searched medical literature databases up to September 2016. We found nine small studies involving a total of 906 children, all of whom were younger than seven years old. Around six out of 10 children were girls. Eight studies were performed in emergency departments or ambulatory care centres. One study was performed in a specialist paediatric orthopaedic unit. Eight trials compared pronation versus supination. One compared two methods of supination.

Key results

The pronation method (with the hand downward) may be more successful in repositioning at first attempt for children with a pulled elbow. We estimated that if six children were treated with the pronation method rather than the supination method, this would avoid one more failure at the first attempt. The evidence was insufficient to draw any conclusions as to which, if either, of the two methods was more painful. Where there was a second attempt using the same method, pronation may be more successful as a second attempt. In a few cases, up to four in 100, none of a series of attempts were successful. None of the studies reported on side effects or how many children had another pulled elbow subsequently (recurrence).

The study comparing two methods of supination provided very low-quality evidence that failure after the first attempt was similar in both methods.

Quality of the evidence

All nine studies had methodological limitations that may affect the reliability of their findings and put them at high risk of bias. The quality of the evidence for failure at first attempt in the pronation versus supination comparison was low, meaning that we are uncertain about the results. The very low quality of the evidence for the other outcomes for both comparisons means we are very uncertain about the results.

Conclusions

Low-quality evidence suggests that the pronation method is more successful than the supination method for reducing pulled elbow in young children. No conclusions can be drawn on other outcomes, including pain and side effects.

Authors' conclusions: 

There was low-quality evidence from eight small trials that the pronation method may be more effective at first attempt than the supination method for manipulating pulled elbow in young children. For other outcomes, no conclusions could be drawn either because of very low-quality evidence or the outcomes not being reported. We suggest that a high-quality randomised clinical trial comparing hyperpronation and supination-flexion is required to provide definitive evidence. We recommend that this is preceded by a survey among clinicians to establish the extent of clinical equipoise and to optimise the study design and recruitment.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Pulled elbow (nursemaid's elbow) is a common injury in young children. It often results from a sudden pull on the arm, usually by an adult or taller person, which pulls the radius through the annular ligament, resulting in subluxation (partial dislocation) of the radial head. It can also be caused by a fall or twist. The child experiences sudden acute pain and loss of function in the affected arm. Pulled elbow is usually treated by manual reduction of the subluxed radial head. Various manoeuvres can be applied; most commonly, supination of the forearm, often combined with flexion, and (hyper-)pronation. It is unclear which is most successful. This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in 2009 and last updated in 2011.

Objectives: 

To compare the effects (benefits and harms) of the different methods used to manipulate pulled elbow in young children.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Bone, Joint and Muscle Trauma Group Specialised Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, LILACS, PEDro, clinical trial registers and reference lists of articles. Date of last search: September 2016.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised or quasi-randomised controlled clinical trials evaluating manipulative interventions for pulled elbow were included. Our primary outcome was failure at the first attempt, necessitating further treatment.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently evaluated trials for inclusion, assessed risk of bias, and extracted data. We pooled data using a fixed-effect model.

Main results: 

Overall, nine trials with 906 children (all younger than seven years old and 58% of whom were female) were included, of which five trials were newly identified in this update. Eight trials were performed in emergency departments or ambulatory care centres, and one was performed in a tertiary paediatric orthopaedic unit. Four trials were conducted in the USA, three in Turkey, one in Iran, and one in Spain. Five trials were at high risk of selection bias because allocation was not concealed and all trials were at high risk of detection bias due to the lack of assessor blinding.

Eight trials compared hyperpronation with supination-flexion. We found low-quality evidence that hyperpronation resulted in less failure at first attempt than supination-flexion (9.2% versus 26.4%, risk ratio (RR) 0.35; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.25 to 0.50; 811 participants, 8 studies). Based on an illustrative risk of 268 failures at first attempt per 1000 children treated using supination-flexion, this amounted to 174 fewer failures per 1000 children treated using hyperpronation (95% CI 134 to 201 fewer). Based on risk differences data, we also estimated a number needed to treat of 6 (95% CI 5 to 8); this means that six children would need to be treated with the hyperpronation method rather than the supination-flexion method to avoid one additional failure at the first attempt.

The very low-quality evidence (from four studies) for pain during or after manipulation means that it is uncertain whether there is or is not a difference between pronation and supination-flexion. There was very low-quality evidence from six studies that repeat pronation may be more effective than repeat supination-flexion for the second attempt after initial failure. The remaining outcomes were either not reported (adverse effects, recurrence) or unsuitable for pooling (ultimate failure). Ultimate failure, reported for the overall population only because of the differences in the study protocols with respect to what to do after the first attempt failed, ranged from no ultimate failures in two studies to six failures (4.1% of 148 episodes) in one study.

One trial compared supination-extension versus supination-flexion. It provided very low-quality evidence (downgraded three levels for very serious risk of bias and serious imprecision) of no clear difference in failure at first attempt between the two methods.

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