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The Elbow  
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Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

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.

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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
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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
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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
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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.

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.
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Treatment  

Treatment includes:

Acute Care  

Rest  

Your elbow will need time to heal. Avoid activities that cause pain or put extra stress on your elbow.

Cold  

Apply an ice pack to the area for 15-20 minutes several times a day after the injury. Do not apply the ice directly to your skin. Wrap the ice pack in a towel.

Pain Relief Medications  

To manage pain, your doctor may recommend:

  • 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:

  • Brace or sling—You may need to wear a brace or sling to immobilize your elbow. Do not return to activities or sports until your doctor gives you permission to do so.
  • Rehabilitation exercises—Begin exercises to restore flexibility, range of motion, and strength in your elbow as recommended by your doctor or physical therapist.
  • Surgery—Surgery is rarely needed to repair a mild elbow sprain without instability or dysfunction.
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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
  • Keep elbows and arms strong with regular exercises to absorb the energy of sudden physical stress