Definition

An elbow sprain is stretching or tearing of the ligaments of the elbow. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that hold bones to each other.

The Elbow
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Causes

An elbow sprain is when a force pushes the bones of the elbow apart. If the force is strong enough, the ligament comes apart. This can happen from things like:

  • A blow to the elbow
  • Forced twisting of the arm
  • An impact with an object or another person
  • Falling on an outstretched arm

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:

  • Playing sports, such as gymnastics or baseball
  • Poor coordination or balance
  • Poor flexibility and strength
  • Loose joints

Symptoms

Problems may be:

  • Pain and tenderness in the elbow
  • Swelling, warmth, or bruising around the elbow
  • Problems moving the elbow

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. You will also be asked how you injured your elbow. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on your elbow.

It can be hard to tell a sprain from a fracture or dislocation. Pictures may be taken. This can be done with:

Treatment

Treatment will depend on the joint and how severe the injury is. The goal of treatment is to ease pain and improve movement. Choices are:

  • Supportive care, such as rest, ice, a compression bandage, and raising the elbow to ease pain and swelling
  • Medicine, such as over the counter or prescription pain relievers
  • Wearing a brace or sling to support the elbow as it heals
  • Physical therapy to improve strength and range of motion

Some people may need surgery to repair a ligament that is torn.

Prevention

Most sprains are due to accidents. They cannot always be prevented. The risk may be lowered by:

  • Using the right safety gear and techniques when playing sports
  • Stretching and strengthening the ligaments that support the elbow
RESOURCES:

American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
http://www.sportsmed.org

Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
http://orthoinfo.aaos.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Orthopaedic Association
http://www.coa-aco.org

Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
http://www.canorth.org

REFERENCES:

Derry S, Moore RA, Gaskell H, McIntyre M, Wiffen PJ. Topical NSAIDs for acute musculoskeletal pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev.2015;(6):CD007402.

Sprains and strains. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/sprains-and-strains. Accessed October 14, 2020.

Sprains, strains and other soft-tissue injuries. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://www.orthoinfo.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00111. Accessed October 14, 2020.

Topical NSAIDs. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/drug-review/topical-nsaids. Accessed October 12, 2020.

Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Teresa Briedwell, PT, DPT  Last Updated: 10/14/2020