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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

Factors that may increase your risk of an elbow sprain include:

  • Playing certain sports, such as gymnastics or baseball
  • Poor coordination
  • Poor balance
  • Inadequate flexibility and strength in muscles and ligaments
  • Loose joints or connective tissue disorders
Symptoms

Elbow sprain may cause:

  • 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

You will be asked about your symptoms and how you injured your elbow. Your elbow will be examined to assess the stability of the joint and the severity of the injury.

Imaging tests may include:

Elbow sprains are graded according to their severity:

  • Grade 1—Some stretching with micro-tearing of ligament tissue.
  • Grade 2—Partial tearing of ligament tissue.
  • Grade 3—Complete tearing of ligament tissue.
Treatment

Treatment includes:

Acute Care

Acute care may involve:

  • Resting the elbow
  • Avoiding activities that cause pain or put stress on the elbow
  • Icing the elbow to reduce swelling and discomfort
  • Using over-the-counter, topical, or prescription pain relievers
Pain Relief Medications

To manage pain, your doctor may advise:

  • Over-the-counter medication, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen
  • Topical pain medication—creams or patches that are applied to the skin
  • Prescription pain relievers

Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.

Recovery

Extra support may be needed to help protect, support, and keep your elbow in line while it heals. Supportive steps may include:

  • Wearing a brace or sling
  • Rehabilitation exercises advised by your doctor or physical therapist
  • Surgery in some cases
Prevention

Elbow sprains may not always be preventable. There are steps you can take to reduce your chance of getting an elbow sprain. These include:

  • Wearing protective equipment and using proper technique while playing sports
  • Keeping elbows and arms strong with regular exercises to absorb the energy of sudden physical stress

RESOURCES:

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

OrthoInfo—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:

Fast facts about sprains and strains. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/Sprains_Strains/sprains_and_strains_ff.asp. Updated November 2014. Accessed June 18, 2015.

Sprains and strains: What's the difference? American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00111. Updated October 2007. Accessed June 18, 2015.

10/26/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us : Massey T, Derry S, et al. Topical NSAIDs for acute pain in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(6):CD007402.



Last reviewed June 2015 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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