Elbow Sprain

What is an elbow sprain?

An elbow sprain is an injury that causes a stretch or tear of one or more of the ligaments in the elbow joint. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that connect bones at the joint.

Sprains may be graded 1, 2, or 3 depending on their severity:

  • grade 1 sprain: pain with minimal damage to the ligaments
  • grade 2 sprain: mild ligament damage and mild looseness of the joint
  • grade 3 sprain: complete tearing of the ligament, and the joint is very loose or unstable

Sometimes sprains are just classified as mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the amount of ligament damage.

How does it occur?

An elbow sprain can occur from a fall onto your elbow or onto your outstretched arm. It may also happen if your arm and elbow is twisted or hyperextended.

What are the symptoms?

You will have pain, swelling and difficulty bending and straightening your elbow and rotating your forearm. Your elbow will be tender to touch.

How is it diagnosed?

Your provider will review your symptoms, ask you how the injury occurred and examine your elbow. You may have an X-ray or an MRI.

How is it treated?

As directed by your provider, use a sling or splint to keep the elbow from moving while it is painful and swollen. Sometimes a splint is used.

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables, wrapped in a cloth on the area every 3 to 4 hours, for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Raise the elbow on a pillow when you sit or lie down.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen, or other medicine as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.
  • Follow your provider’s instructions for doing exercises to help you recover.

If severe ligament damage has occurred, surgery may be needed.

How long will the effects last?

The effects of an elbow sprain usually last 3 to 6 weeks.

When can I return to my normal activities?

Everyone recovers from an injury at a different rate. Return to your activities depends on how soon your elbow recovers, not by how many days or weeks it has been since your injury has occurred. The goal of rehabilitation is to return you to your normal activities as soon as is safely possible. If you return too soon you may worsen your injury.

You may return to your activities when your elbow has full range of motion without pain and has the same strength as the uninjured side.

Written by Pierre Rouzier, MD.
Adult Advisor 2012.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-07-27
Last reviewed: 2010-06-21
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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