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Elbow Sprain/Strain

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  • What is an Elbow Sprain/Strain?

    An elbow sprain or strain involves an injury to the soft tissues of the elbow.    Sprains involve injury to one or more of the three ligaments (the bands of tissue that connect bones together) within the joint, the radial or ulnar collateral ligaments or the annular ligament of radius.  Strains refer to injuries of muscles and tendons surrounding the joint, the lateral or medial epicondyle.  Sprains of the elbow are less common than strains.  Common elbow strains include conditions such as tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow.


    What causes an Elbow Sprain/Strain?

    Most elbow sprains occur when there is a traumatic impact to the elbow that causes it to twist sharply or bend sideways or backward in an unnatural motion.  This can occur during a fall or during contact sports or other types of collisions (such as motor vehicle accidents).  Elbow strains usually occur from acute or chronic (repetitive) overuse or overstretching of the muscles or tendons in the elbow, arm or wrist.


    What are the symptoms of an Elbow Sprain/Strain?

    Symptoms of elbow sprains may include pain, swelling, tenderness, and bruising in the area around the elbow, as well as muscle spasm.  More severe sprains can result in joint instability and dislocation or immobility.  In some cases, a tearing or popping sensation may be felt within the elbow at the time of the trauma and in rare instances, a severe sprain can pull a fragment of bone loose, resulting in a sprain-fracture.  Sprains are graded according to severity (grades I through III), so the severity of symptoms will depend on the severity of the ligament damage.  Symptoms of elbow strains can include pain, swelling, tenderness, immobility and stiffness.  Elbow strains are also graded according to severity and can result in little, partial or full loss of strength and functionality.  Symptoms may be worse when performing certain activities and may improve with rest.


    How is an Elbow Sprain/Strain diagnosed?

    A medical professional will take a complete medical history and will perform a physical exam.  Questions will be asked related to when the symptoms began, what activities caused the symptoms, what worsens or relieves symptoms, and the relative severity of symptoms.  Pressure will be placed on the areas of suspected injury to identify swelling, tenderness, bruising and pain.  Patients may be asked to perform certain movements to determine range of motion limitations, stability of the joint, and to identify what increases or decreases pain.  The injured elbow will also be compared to the healthy elbow.  X-rays may be ordered to rule out fractures.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and CT scan are not often used in diagnosis.  


    When should I seek care for an Elbow Sprain/Strain?

    If you fall on your arm or elbow, receive a blow to the elbow that causes continued pain and swelling, or if you have pain, stiffness or limited mobility following any activity that does not improve with home treatments (rest, ice, over the counter medications), you should seek the advice of a medical professional.  If the injury is accompanied by an inability to move your arm or elbow, severe swelling, or you think a bone may be fractured or the joint dislocated, you should seek immediate medical attention.


    What will the treatment for an Elbow Sprain/Strain consist of?

    Treatment for elbow sprains and sprains begins with rest, application of ice, and avoidance of activities that exacerbate pain.  Nonsteridal anti-inflammatory medications can be taken to reduce pain and swelling.  The arm may be immobilized temporarily with a sling, splint, bandage, or soft cast.  For more moderate sprains and strains, physical therapy is recommended and may include massage, therapeutic ultrasound and heat therapy, followed by stretching, range of motion and strengthening exercises as the injury improves.  Ergonomic assessments to modify how activities are carried out may prevent re-injury of strains.  Surgery is rarely done on elbow strains and sprains, except in cases of complete tearing of ligaments or tendons.  When surgery is performed, a rehabilitation program must be followed following several weeks of immobility of the elbow.  


    Which muscle groups/joints are commonly affected by an Elbow Sprain/Strain?

    Elbow sprains and strains affect the ligaments and tendons in the elbow and surrounding area.  Injury can also cause pain and affect functionality and mobility throughout the arm.


    What type of results should I expect from the treatment of an Elbow Sprain/Strain?

    Most patients with mild or moderate elbow sprains and strains will completely heal with conservative treatments.  For more severe injuries, surgery may be required, but is generally successful as long as the proper course of rehabilitation is followed after surgery.  If injuries are not allowed to heal completely before resuming regular activities, there is a risk of re-injury.  Repeated injury in the case of ligaments can result in chronic dislocation of the elbow joint.