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Radius and ulna

The radius and the ulna constitute as the bones of the forearm. The antebrachial region, as it is clinically known, spans the length of the region which extends roughly from elbow to wrist. The radius is the lateral of the two bones, which makes the ulna the medial bone of the forearm. 

These bones are specially designed in order to enable the movements that are unique for the upper limb, such are supination and pronation. With all of the 20 muscles of the forearm they support, these bones are essential for the functioning of the upper extremity.

Key facts about the radius and ulna
Proximal end of the radius Head (upper surface for the joint with the capitulum of the humerus; the circumference for the joint with the radial notch of the ulna), neck (gives support to the radial head), radial tuberosity
Shaft of the radius Borders: anterior border, interosseus border, posterior border
Surfaces: anterior surface, posterior surface , lateral surface
Distal end of the radius Articular surfaces: carpal surface for the joint with scaphoid and lunate bones, ulnar notch for the joint with the head of the ulna
Non-articular surfaces: anterior, posterior, lateral
Muscles Biceps brachii - insertion - radial tuberosity
Supinator - origin and insertion - proximal third of the shaft
Flexor digitorum superficialis - origin - medial surface
Flexor pollicis longus - origin - medial surface
Pronator teres - insertion - lateral surface
Pronator quadratus - insertion - medial surface
Abductor pollicis longus - origin - posterior surface
Proximal end of the ulna Two curved processes - olecranon (received into the olecranon fossa of the humerus during extension) and the coronoid process (received into the coronoid fossa of the humerus during flexion); two concave articular cavities - semilunar notch (articulates with the trochlea of the humerus) and radial notch (articulates with the circumference of the head of the radius)
Shaft of the ulna Borders: anterior border, posterior border, interosseous border 
Surfaces: anterior surface, posterior surface, medial surface
Distal end of the ulna Head - articular surface that joints with the triangular articular disc and the ulnar notch of the radius
Styloid process - attachment to the ulnar collateral ligament of the wrist joint
Muscles Triceps brachii - insertion - olecranon process
Anconeus - insertion - olecranon process
Brachialis - insertion - coronoid process
Pronator teres - origin - coronoid process
Flexor carpi ulnaris - origin - olecranon process and posterior surface
Flexor digitorum superficialis - origin - anterior and medial surface
Flexor digitorum profundus - origin - anterior and medial surface
Pronator quadratus - origin - anterior surface (distal part)
Extensor carpi ulnaris - origin - posterior border
Supinator - origin - proximal end
Abductor pollicis longus - origin - posterior surface
Extensor pollicis longus - origin - posterior surface
Extensor indicis - origin - posterior surface (distal part)

This article will focus upon the bones themselves, with special attention paid to their individual characteristics and surrounding attachments. A brief overview of the potential pathological conditions that may affect either of these bones will follow.

  1. Radius bone markings
    1. Proximal radius (head, neck and tuberosity)
    2. Radial shaft
    3. Distal radius
  2. Ulna bone markings
    1. Proximal ulna
    2. Ulnar shaft
    3. Distal ulna
  3. Interosseous membrane
  4. Fractures of radius and ulna
  5. Sources
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Radius bone markings

The radius is the shorter of the two bones of the forearm and is comprised of a shaft, along with a proximal and a distal extremity.

Proximal radius (head, neck and tuberosity)

The head can be found proximally and is known as the caput radii, which articulates with the capitulum of the humerus as part of the compound joint of the elbow and is concave to look at. The radius also communicates with the head of the ulna by articulating with the ulna’s radial notch via its own circumference.

The neck is the area of the bone that narrows in between the head and the radial or bicipital tuberosity. Just below the head and neck of the radius is the radial tuberosity, which is an oval-shaped convexity upon which the biceps brachii inserts.

Radial shaft

The shaft of the radial bone is the long, wide column of bone that is convex on its lateral side but enlarges towards the wrist. It has three borders (anterior, posterior and interosseous) and three surfaces (anterior, posterior and lateral). There are several anatomical landmarks upon its surfaces, which allows for the origin and insertion of tendons.

Laterally we can find the attachment of two muscles:

  • Supinator muscle (radial head) attaches to the lateral aspect of the radius, covering a large area of it.
  • Pronator teres muscle also adheres to the radial shaft (below the supinator's attachment) and inserts on the pronator tuberosity, which is a well-demarcated, rough area.

Medially, in between the invagination created by the two laterally attaching muscles, we can see the origins  of another two muscles, as follows:

The larger of the two muscular attachments that cover the distal end of the shaft on its medial surface is that of pronator quadratus muscle. Slightly inferior to it on the opposite side sits the insertion of the brachioradialis muscle, which is just above the styloid process - an extrusion of the suprastyloid crest. This is a projection of the lateral aspect of the distal end of the radial bone that margins the carpal articular surface superiorly. Meanwhile The posterior surface of the radius is the origin of  two more muscles:

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Distal radius

The last two landmarks of note are not, however, muscle attachments, but bony developments. The dorsal tubercle protrudes on the posterior aspect of the distal head of the radius and is seated between the grooves for the tendons of the extensor carpi radialis longus and brevis as well as the tendon of the extensor pollicis longus. The ulnar notch of the radius is a medial concavity upon the distal head of the bone which directly contacts the distal ulna at the same level.

Ulna bone markings

Proximal ulna

The ulna is a long bone that helps stabilize the antebrachial region from the medial side of the forearm. Its proximal end consists of the following processes (2) and notches (2): 

  • Olecranon: A hook-shaped process, located on the posterior aspect of the proximal ulnar end,
  • Trochlear notch: A C-shaped notch, located anterior to the olecranon. It articulates with the trochlea of the humerus at the elbow joint.
  • Coronoid process
  • Radial notch: The articular facet of the radioulnar joint which can be found on the lateral aspect of its head.

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Cadaveric radius, ulna and humerus with labeled landmarks of the elbow joint

Ulnar shaft

The shaft of the ulna is tapered distally and thicker around the neck and proximal portion. Its lateral side is sharp and gives rise to the interosseous membrane between the two bones of the forearm, hence the name - interosseous border.

From a posterior aspect, the ulna is rounded and smooth and can be palpated subcutaneously for the entire length of the antebrachial region. Just below the coronoid process at the highest point of the shaft, the ulnar tuberosity forms the muscular attachment of the brachialis muscle.

On the lateral side and inferior to the radial notch, the supinator fossa is a concavity that is limited by the supinator crest and holds the originating fibers of the supinator muscle. Just below this muscle attachment, a second, smaller one can be found for the flexor pollicis longus.

Anteriorly, midway down the ulnar bony shaft, there exists a nutrient foramen, which governs bone growth from the time of the seventh intrauterine week up until the eleventh year of life. This is covered by the flexor digitorum profundus muscle which spans the majority of the ulnar shaft.

Posteriorly, on the distal side of the olecranon, the anconeus muscle finds its distal attachment or insertion. The origin for the flexor carpi ulnaris muscles and ulnar head of the supinator muscle are also located on the proximal posterior surface. 

Three consecutive muscle attachments can be seen in descending order just below the attachment of the interosseous membrane as it travels down the shaft and they are:

Learn everything about the anatomy of radius and ulna with our articles, video tutorials, labeled diagrams, and quizzes.

Distal ulna

The distal head of the ulna is comprised of the articular circumference which articulates with the wrist bones and posteriorly, a bony projection known as the styloid process. Just above it on the medial aspect of the bone, the attachment of the pronator quadratus which runs between the radius and the ulna is positioned.

Styloid process of radius (anterior view)

Interosseous membrane

Despite having many adjacent structures, the radius and ulna are directly connected via a syndesmosis called the radioulnar fibrous joint. It is an interosseous membrane that runs between the medial aspects of the bones and sections off the region of the forearm into anterior and posterior compartments.

Proximally it contains a single oblique cord which runs proximally, creating a triangle shape between it, the distal surface of the ulna and the membrane (whose fibers generally run distally, towards the wrist).

Distally, a single aperture can be seen at the level of attachment of the pronator quadratus muscle. This is known as the aperture for the anterior interosseous artery.

Test yourself on radius and ulna anatomy with the quiz below:

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