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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Elbow sprains may be caused by:
- Forced twisting of the arm
- Falling on an outstretched arm
- A blow to the elbow
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
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
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.
Your elbow will need time to heal. Avoid activities that cause pain or put extra stress on your elbow.
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.
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
Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
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.
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
Elbow pain—differential diagnosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Accessed September 17, 2013.
Fast facts about sprains and strains.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at:
http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/Sprains_Strains/sprains_and_strains_ff.asp. Updated June 2009. Accessed September 17, 2013.
Sprains and strains: What's the difference?
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at:
http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00111. Updated October 2007. Accessed September 17, 2013.
10/26/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance
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Cochrane Database Syst Rev.
Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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