Definition

An elbow sprain is stretching or tearing of the ligaments that stabilize the elbow. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that cross joints and connect bones to each other.

The Elbow

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Causes

Elbow sprains may be caused by:

  • Forced twisting of the arm
  • Falling on an outstretched arm
  • A blow to the elbow

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease, condition, or injury.

Risk factors for an elbow sprain:

  • Playing certain sports, such as gymnastics
  • Poor coordination
  • Poor balance
  • Inadequate flexibility and strength in muscles and ligaments
  • Loose joints

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Pain, tenderness, and swelling around the elbow
  • Redness, warmth, or bruising around the elbow
  • Limited ability to move the elbow
  • Pain when moving the elbow

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and how you injured your elbow. The doctor will examine your elbow to assess the stability of the joint and the severity of the injury.

Tests may include:

  • X-rays —a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially the bones. You may have an x-ray to make sure that no bones are broken.
  • MRI scan —a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body. You might have a scan to see if a ligament has torn completely (but rarely needed).

Elbow sprains are graded according to their severity.

Grade1

  • Stretching and some microtearing of ligament tissue

Grade 2

  • Partial tearing of ligament tissue
  • Mild instability of the joint

Grade 3

  • Severe or complete tearing of ligament tissue
  • Significant instability of the joint

Treatment

Treatment includes:

  • Rest—Avoid using your injured arm.
  • Ice—Apply ice or a cold pack to the elbow for 15-20 minutes, four times a day for several days. This helps reduce pain and swelling. Wrap the ice or cold pack in a towel. Do not apply the ice directly to your skin.
  • Compression—Wrap your elbow in an elastic compression bandage (eg, Ace bandage). This will limit swelling and support your elbow. Be careful not to wrap your elbow too tightly, which could compromise the circulation.
  • Medication—Take one of the following drugs to help reduce inflammation and pain:
    • Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)
    • Naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)
    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
    • Aspirin
  • Sling—You may need to wear a sling to immobilize your arm and elbow.
  • Cast—If you have a severe sprain, your doctor may recommend a cast or splint for 2-3 weeks.
  • Rehabilitation exercises—Begin exercises to restore the range of motion and strength in your elbow as recommended by your healthcare professional.
  • Surgery—Surgery is not needed to repair an elbow sprain. However, in rare cases, surgery may be needed to repair a ligament that is torn completely.

Prevention

Elbow sprains usually occur from accidents that cannot be prevented.