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Nursemaid’s Elbow and Other Antique Ailments

July 26th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  4 Comments

When you spend much of your life halfway across the world from your family, there are certain things you don’t want to hear when, once a day, you check in by phone. Such as: “I took Sasha to the emergency room today.”

So it went last week. Jean and Sasha had apparently been playing one of our family’s most cherished games—picking the kid up the hands and swinging her around in a circle until both parent and child are dizzy-sick—but something went wrong, and Sasha’s left arm overextended and went limp. More than limp—dead. Sasha, Jean said, couldn’t move it at all.

Jean was flummoxed, and I wished I’d been there, since I at least had heard of this condition, known as nursemaid’s elbow, or babysitter’s elbow. Frankly, it’s a pretty neat situation, especially since it’s not dire. As Wikipedia puts it:

“If the forearm of a young child is pulled, by a parent or caregiver, it is possible for this traction to pull the radius into the annular ligament with enough force to cause it to be jammed therein.”

There can be some pain, but often there’s none, or very little, and it can all be fixed by a doctor or nurse who knows just how to pop the elbow back into place. Which is what the ER people did, and Sasha was soon using her left hand to smear food into her hair again.

No more monkeys swinging from our hands, however. Not till she’s three, the docs say.

What I love about nursemaid’s elbow is what it tells us about human evolution. Kids’ bones start out soft, and apparently for a reason: protecting children requires an occasional yank or two. If the bones were hard, parents might break them accidentally. But instead, the body (at least until age 3 or so) has this wonderful error-handling mechanism. Also: It means that hand-holding is such an in-built part of our social structure that our bodies adapted to accommodate it. Neato.

Also: What an awesome name—nursemaid’s elbow! It puts me in mind of all those great disease names of old, like dropsy, apoplexy, grocer’s itch, and marasmus. None of which, I hope, will afflict Sasha anytime soon.


  1. Matt says:

    July 26th, 2010at 7:46 pm(#)

    You know, I forgot to add the whole coda to this, which is that Sunday we were walking around the neighborhood with Sasha, each of us holding one of her hands—but not too tightly, cuz we didn’t want to yank the elbow out of alignment again. Of course, this let her escape our clutches with ease, and she started to run, instantly tripping on the sidewalk and falling on her face. Her forehead hit the concrete with a clunk. Terrifying.

  2. beta dad says:

    July 27th, 2010at 2:05 am(#)

    That can cause a condition called “quarryman’s noggin.”

  3. WhiskAwayNic says:

    July 27th, 2010at 11:13 am(#)

    Reminds me of the time many years ago when my poor Pop pulled my sisters arm right out of its socket. He was more devastated than she!


    The ongoing, unfortunate torture of my daughter | DADWAGON

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