sprained elbow

Common Symptoms of a Sprained Elbow

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Medically reviewed by Misty Seidenburg

The elbow joint is one of the most complex in the human body. A sudden, forceful bend or twist in an awkward position can leave you with considerable elbow pain. A sprain is just one of many possible causes of elbow pain. Learn to recognize the signs of a sprained elbow and how to treat your injury to ease discomfort and regain healthy joint mobility and function.

The Elbow Joint

The elbow joint is located where the long bone (humerus) of the upper arm connects to the two bones of the forearm (the radius and ulna.) As a hinge joint, the elbow can bend the arm up and down. The upper part of the radius also rotates which allows the forearm to twist.

Ligaments are tough, fibrous bands of connective tissue that attach the bones of the upper arm and the forearm to the bones in the elbow joint. They also hold bones in proper position and aid in their movement. An elbow sprain is an injury to these ligaments.

What Causes a Sprained Elbow?

Ligaments can overstretch or tear in many ways, including:

  • A direct hit or blow to the elbow
  • Falling on an outstretched arm
  • Sudden twisting or other motion at the elbow
  • Excess stress on the joint from repetitive activities over time

You don’t have to be an elite athlete to develop a sprain. Although sprains are common sports injuries, damage occurs in other ways too. You can bend your arm the wrong way doing something as routine as carrying groceries in from the car.

What Does a Sprained Elbow Feel Like?

It’s easy to make the connection between single trauma to the arm or elbow and immediate elbow pain. The connection between repetitive stress on the elbow joint and ligament damage is not always as clear.

Here are some common signs and symptoms of a sprained elbow to look for:

  • Pain
  • Bruising
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • A burning sensation
  • Limited range of motion
  • Difficulty bending and straightening the elbow
  • Hearing or feeling a “pop” at the time of injury

When to Be Concerned About Elbow Pain

So, you have some sprained elbow symptoms, but how can you be sure what’s causing your elbow pain? Elbow pain should never be overlooked. If you don’t address your symptoms, you risk causing further damage. Or, you may have a more serious injury that requires urgent medical care.

As a general rule, it is wise to see your healthcare provider or physical therapist if elbow pain and other symptoms interfere with your regular activities or lingers beyond a reasonable amount of time (usually 10 days.) Elbow swelling and bruising should also be monitored, and checked out if they worsen over time.

After a fall, contact hit, or other trauma to the elbow, get immediate medical attention if you notice obvious deformity in the elbow or arm, fever, chills, or sharp intense pain that affects range of motion in the joint.

Treating Elbow Pain and Sprains with Physical Therapy

Once your elbow pain has a diagnosis, you can take steps to manage pain and rehabilitate the joint safely and gradually. We achieve this through:

  • Manual therapy: hands-on techniques that improve the function and mobility of muscles, nerves, and tissues
  • Exercise: therapeutic stretching and exercise to restore elbow strength and flexibility
  • Splinting: this helps to stabilize and support the injured the arm to prevent further ligament damage
  • IASTM: Instrument-assisted soft-tissue mobilization can promote healing and better range of motion, while reducing pain

These are just some of the many conservative yet effective physical therapy treatments and techniques available to help you feel and function better after an elbow injury. Your treatment plan is individualized just for you based on your health history, symptoms, and diagnosis.

Do I Need Surgery for an Elbow Sprain?

Sprains are graded by the extent and severity of ligament damage. Grade-3 sprains are complete ligament tears and are the most severe type of sprain. They typically involve joint instability and may require surgical repair and reconstruction. After surgery, you can work on building strength and increasing flexibility in the affected arm with physical therapy.

Are you ready to find out what’s behind that pesky elbow pain? Find a physical therapy clinic near you.

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Medically reviewed by

Misty Seidenburg

Vice President of Clinical Programs

Dr. Misty Seidenburg has been a practicing physical therapist since 2006 after obtaining her Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree from Gannon University. Dr. Seidenburg completed an Orthopedic Residency in 2009 and subsequent Spine Fellowship in 2010 where she discovered a passion for educating clinicians. Since 2019, she has developed and refined several post-professional residency and fellowship programs and currently serves as the Vice President of Clinical Programs for Upstream Rehab Institute. She serves on several APTA committees to help advance the profession, is adjunct faculty at Messiah University, and is also a senior instructor and course developer for the Institute of Advanced Musculoskeletal Treatments with a special interest in exercise integration. Outside of work, she enjoys challenging herself with new adventures and is currently competing as an endurance athlete.

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