Elbow Sprain: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

The elbow is a body part that can easily be forgotten about but it is essential to many everyday tasks. If you injure your elbow, it could be very painful and greatly hinder those everyday activities. The elbow aids in flexing, extending, and rotating the arms. 

You may think that only athletes get elbow injuries but that is not true. Anyone from kids to older adults can suffer from an elbow injury. They can be very painful and limit a person’s activities of daily living. 

What is an Elbow Sprain?

The term ‘sprain’ is used to describe an injury to the ligaments around a joint. Ligaments are what help connect bones in the body. The ligaments around the elbow connect the upper arm bone (humerus) to the two lower arm bones (ulna and radius). An elbow sprain means that these ligaments are injured. 

How Do You Spain the Elbow? 

An elbow sprain can happen to anyone when their arm is twisted or bent quickly in an unusual or unnatural position or if the ligaments are overworked. Some common examples of how an elbow sprain could happen include, 

  • Falling with your arm stretched out
  • A physical accident
  • Overworking and putting a lot of stress on the elbow 

Elbow Sprain Symptoms

The main symptoms of an elbow sprain are pain, inflammation, redness, bruising, and warmth. The elbow may be hard to move. If there was a popping noise when the elbow injury occurred it could mean that the ligament was torn. 

What Does a Sprained Elbow Feel Like?

A sprained elbow is usually painful. It may be difficult to bend, straighten, or move the arm. There are several different types of elbow injuries so it is important to see a healthcare provider for diagnosis. 

Elbow Sprain Causes

An elbow sprain occurs when the elbow/arm is suddenly bent, twisted, or moved unnaturally. This could happen during a fall, accident, or putting too much stress on the elbow. 

Diagnosing Elbow Sprains

Diagnosing an elbow sprain requires an exam from a healthcare provider. They will examine the injured body area and ask several assessment questions. 

Since bones and ligaments are not visible with the naked eye, they may order imaging testing such as an X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI.

Imaging tests will provide a picture of the injury and a radiologist will interpret the results. Imaging tests help determine the exact location of the injury and how severe the injury is. 

If the injury requires more intensive care your healthcare provider may refer you to an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist. 

Sprain vs Fractured Elbow

A sprain is an injury to the ligaments and a fracture is an injury or break to a bone. 

How to Treat a Sprained Elbow?

The treatment plan for a sprained elbow will be determined with your healthcare provider depending on factors such as your medical history, lifestyle, and severity of the injury. Along with rest and restricted activity of the elbow joint, the provider may recommend a sling, cast, splint, surgery, or physical therapy. 

At Home Care for a Sprained Elbow

Your healthcare provider will give you at home care instructions for caring for a sprained elbow. A common at home treatment that is recommended for many injuries is the RICE method.

RICE is an acronym for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. 

  • REST: Rest will include restricting the activity and movement of the elbow so that the ligaments can heal. 
  • ICE: Applying ice to the elbow a few times a day will help reduce swelling and inflammation.
  • COMPRESSION: Using a tight bandage or wrap will help compress the injury to provide support and decrease swelling. Check with your healthcare provider to see if they recommend compression for your specific injury. 
  • ELEVATION: Elevating the joint above the heart will aid in reducing swelling. This can be done by propping the arm up with pillows or blankets. 

Your healthcare provider may recommend an over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory medication to aid in minimizing pain and inflammation. It is essential to take these medications as indicated.

Medical/Surgical Sprained Elbow Treatments

In some circumstances physical therapy may be recommended for someone who has experienced an elbow strain. A physical therapist will evaluate your injury and make recommendations. 

They will have you do exercises to help heal, strengthen, and regain mobility in the elbow ligaments. Most elbow sprains do not require surgery but in more severe cases, surgery may be recommended to repair the ligaments. 

How Long Does an Elbow Sprain Take to Heal?

Each person heals at a different pace and it is important to not try to rush the healing process. If a person does not follow their healthcare provider’s recommendation it could lead to injuring the elbow again or making the injury worse. 

The amount of time it will take an elbow sprain to heal will depend on a person’s medical history, comorbidities, lifestyle, resources, and the severity of the injury. 

A simple elbow sprain will take about four weeks to heal, but this is a general guideline. It could take longer depending on the severity of the injury. 

How to Prevent Elbow Sprains?

You can prevent elbow strains by avoiding bending or twisting the elbow in an unnatural position. Before physical activity, do warm-up and stretching exercises. Avoid straining the elbow ligaments by not doing the same exercise excessively or lifting too much weight. 

If your elbow is hurting during physical activity, don’t push to do more, instead rest and take a break. If you are playing sports wear supportive or protective gear. 

When to See a Doctor?

If your elbow is causing you pain or is swollen and at home care is not working, you should see a healthcare provider for treatment. If you are unable to bend or straighten your arm you should seek medical care urgently. 

Get Help From an Online Doctor

Technology has now allowed patients to connect with healthcare providers quicker than ever before. At DrHouse you can connect with a board-certified doctor in as little as 15 minutes. You can even schedule an in-person visit with one of their doctors. This is convenient when it comes to getting medical treatment faster. 

It will take some primary doctor’s office days to get you in for an appointment. With DrHouse you could see an online doctor in less time than it takes you to cook a meal or take a shower. You won’t even have to leave your house. This will save you time and allow you to get quick treatment for your symptoms and medical concerns.

Key Takeaways

The elbow is used in many daily activities of living. It aids in flexing, extending, and rotating the arms. An elbow sprain can happen to anyone when their arm is twisted or bent quickly in an unusual or unnatural position or if the ligaments are overworked. The RICE method is a useful at-home treatment for elbow sprains but in some cases you may need further treatment from a healthcare provider.  

Sources:

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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