Everyone has had a minor elbow
injury. You may have bumped your "funny bone" at
the back of your elbow, causing shooting numbness and pain. The funny-bone
sensation can be intense, but it is not serious and will go away on its own.
Maybe your elbow has become sore after activity. Elbow injuries can be minor or
serious and may include symptoms such as pain, swelling, numbness, tingling,
weakness, or decreased range of motion. Home treatment often can help relieve
minor aches and pains.
Injuries are the most common cause of elbow
pain. Some people may not recall having had a specific injury, especially if
symptoms began gradually or during everyday activities.To better understand elbow injuries, you may want to review the structure and function of the elbow. See a picture of the elbow .
Elbow injuries occur most commonly
- Sports or recreational
- Work-related tasks.
- Work or projects around
Most elbow injuries in children occur during activities, such
as sports or play, or are the result of accidental falls. The risk for injury
is higher in contact sports such as wrestling, football, or soccer, or
high-speed sports such as biking, in-line skating, skiing, hockey, snowboarding, or
skateboarding. Elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers are the most
affected body areas. Any injury in a child or teen that occurs near a
joint may injure the growing end (growth plate) of long bones and needs to be
Older adults have a higher risk for injuries and
fractures because they lose muscle mass and bone strength (osteoporosis) as they age. They also have more
problems with vision and balance, which increase their risk for accidental
Sudden (acute) injury
An acute injury may be caused
by a direct blow, penetrating injury, or fall or by twisting, jerking,
jamming, or bending an elbow abnormally. Pain may be sudden and severe.
Bruising and swelling may develop soon after the injury. Acute injuries
- Bruises from a tear or rupture of small
blood vessels under the skin.
- Injuries to
ligaments, the ropy fibers that connect bones to
bones around joints.
- Injuries to
tendons that connect muscles to
- Injuries to joints (sprains) that
stretch or tear the ligaments.
- Pulled muscles (strains) caused by overstretching
- Muscle tears or ruptures, such as your biceps or triceps
in your upper arm.
- Broken bones (fractures) of the
upper arm bone (humerus) or the forearm bones (ulna or radius) at the elbow
- Dislocations of the elbow joint (out of its normal
position). See a picture of a
dislocated elbow .
Overuse injuries occur when too much
stress is placed on a joint or other tissue, often by overdoing an
activity or through repetition of an activity. Overuse
Swelling behind the elbow may be
olecranon bursitis (Popeye elbow).
- Tendinosis, which is a series of microtears in the
connective tissue in or around the tendon.
- Soreness or pain felt on the outside
(lateral) part of the elbow may be
tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis). This is the most
common type of
tendinopathy that affects the elbow and most often is
caused by overuse of the forearm muscles. This overuse may occur during sports,
such as tennis, swimming, golf, and sports involving throwing; jobs, such as
carpentry or plumbing; or daily activities, such as lifting objects or
- Soreness or pain in the inner (medial) part of the elbow
golfer's elbow. In children who participate in sports
that involve throwing, the same elbow pain may be described as
Little Leaguer's elbow.
- Pinched nerves, such as ulnar nerve compression, which is the
pinching of the ulnar nerve near the elbow joint. This usually occurs with
infection of the elbow may cause pain, redness,
swelling, warmth, fever, chills, pus, or swollen
lymph nodes in the armpit on that side of your body.
"Shooter's abscess" is an infection commonly seen in people who inject illegal
drugs into the veins of their arms.
Elbow injuries such as bruises, burns, fractures, cuts, or punctures may be caused by abuse. Suspect possible abuse when an injury cannot be explained or does not match the explanation, repeated injuries occur, or the explanations for the cause of the injury change.
Treatment for an elbow injury may include
first aid measures; application of a brace, splint, or cast;
physical therapy; medicines; and in some cases,
surgery. Treatment depends on:
- The location, type, and severity of the
- How long ago the injury occurred.
- Your age,
health condition, and activities, such as work, sports, or hobbies.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when
you should see a doctor.
Most minor injuries will heal on
their own, and home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your
symptoms and promote healing. But if you suspect that you have a more severe
injury, use first aid measures while you arrange for an evaluation by your
First aid for a suspected broken bone
- If a bone is sticking out of your skin, do not
try to push it back into your skin. It is better to leave the bone alone and
cover the area with a clean bandage.
- Control bleeding
from your injury.
- Remove all rings, bracelets, watches,
or any other jewelry from the injured arm immediately. It may be hard to
remove the jewelry if swelling occurs, which in turn can cause other serious
problems, such as nerve compression or restricted blood flow.
- Splint your injured arm without trying to straighten
it. Loosen the wrap around the splint if you develop signs that indicate the
wrap is too tight, such as numbness, tingling, increased pain, swelling, or
cool skin below the wrap. A problem called
compartment syndrome can develop.
If a cast or splint is applied, it is important to keep it
dry and to try to move the uninjured part of your arm as normally as possible
to help maintain muscle strength and tone. Your doctor will give you
instructions on how to
care for your cast or splint.
Home treatment for a minor injury
Home treatment may
help relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness.
- Remove all rings, bracelets, watches,
or any other jewelry that goes around your wrist or fingers of the injured arm.
It will be more difficult to remove the jewelry later if swelling increases.
rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) to treat pain and swelling.
- Wear a
sling for the first 48 hours after the injury if it
makes you more comfortable and supports the injured area. If you feel you need
to use a sling for more than 48 hours, discuss your symptoms with your
- An elbow support, such as an elbow sleeve, forearm wrap, or
arm sling, may help rest your elbow joint, relieve
stress on your forearm muscles, and protect your joint during activity. A
counterforce brace may be helpful for tennis elbow
symptoms. Follow the manufacturer's directions for using the
- Gently massage or rub the area to relieve pain and encourage
blood flow. Do not massage the injured area if it causes pain.
the first 48 hours after an injury, avoid things that might increase swelling,
such as hot showers, hot tubs, hot packs, or alcoholic
- After 48 to 72 hours, if swelling is gone, apply
heat and begin
gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help
restore and maintain flexibility. Some experts recommend alternating between
hot and cold treatments.
- If applying ice to your elbow does not
reduce the swelling, talk with your doctor about hydrocortisone gel treatments
(phonophoresis) with a physical therapist.
- Start exercises using
the MSA process (gentle exercise). MSA stands for movement, strength, and
- Movement. Resume a
full range of motion as soon as possible after an injury. After 24 to 48 hours
of rest, begin moving the injured area. Stop any activity if it causes pain, and
give the injured area more rest. Gentle stretching will prevent the formation
of scar tissue that may decrease movement.
- Strength. Once the swelling is gone and range of motion is
restored, begin gradual efforts to strengthen the injured area. Hand grip
exercises can help you regain elbow strength. Using a small ball, such as an
old tennis ball, squeeze the ball 20 to 25 times holding each squeeze for about
5 seconds. After 2 to 3 weeks of hand grip exercises, you may begin forearm
exercises of extending or bending the elbow.
- Alternate activities. After the first few days but while the
injury is still healing, slowly add in regular exercise, such as activities or
sports that do not place a strain on the injured area. If certain activities
cause pain, stop doing those activities but continue doing your other
- Do not smoke or use other tobacco products.
Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue
repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
| Try a nonprescription
medicine to help treat your fever or pain:|
- Acetaminophen, such as
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs):
such as Advil or Motrin
- Naproxen, such as Aleve or Naprosyn
- Aspirin (also a nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drug), such as Bayer or Bufferin
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and
forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two
medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
| Be sure to follow these
safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:|
- Carefully read and follow all directions
on the medicine bottle and box.
- Do not take more than the
- Do not take a medicine if you have had an
allergic reaction to it in the past.
you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take
- If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other
than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
- Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
- Pain or swelling does not improve or it gets worse.
- Signs of infection develop.
- Numbness; tingling; or cool, pale skin
- Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.
The following tips may prevent elbow
problems or injuries.
General prevention tips
- Wear your seat belt when you travel in a motor
- Do not use alcohol or other drugs before participating in
sports or when operating a motor vehicle or other equipment.
carry objects that are too heavy.
- Use a step stool. Do not stand on
chairs or other unsteady objects.
- Wear protective gear during
sports or recreational activities, such as roller-skating or soccer. Supportive
splints may reduce your risk for injury. Make sure your child also wears protective clothing to prevent sports injuries.
- Stretch before and after
physical exercise, sports, or recreational activities to warm up your
stretching and range-of-motion (ROM) exercises with
your fingers and wrist to prevent stiffening of the tendons that affect your
elbows. Gently bend, straighten, and rotate your wrist. If you have any pain,
stop the exercises.
- Use the correct techniques (movements) or
positions during activities so that you do not strain your
- Avoid overusing your arm doing repeated movements that
can injure your
bursa or tendons. In daily routines or hobbies,
examine activities in which you make repeated arm movements.
lessons to learn the proper technique for sports. Have a trainer or person who
is familiar with sports equipment check your equipment to see if it is well
suited for your level of ability, body size, and body strength.
you feel that activities at your workplace are causing pain or soreness from
overuse, call your human resources department for information on alternative
ways of doing your job or to discuss equipment modifications or other job
Preventing falls will help you to avoid
elbow injuries. To prevent falls:
- Remove obstacles, such as electrical cords or
clutter, from your walking paths around your home. See other
tips to prevent falls of adults.
stair gates to block stairways if you have babies or toddlers in your home. See
other tips to prevent falls of babies and toddlers.
Keep bones strong
- Eat a nutritious diet that includes enough
vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium.
Calcium is found in dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt; dark
green, leafy vegetables, such as broccoli; and other
- Exercise and stay active. Talk to your doctor about an
exercise program that is right for you. Begin slowly, especially if you have
been inactive. For more information, see the topic Fitness: Getting and Staying Active.
drink more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day if you are a man, or 1 alcoholic drink
a day if you are a woman. People who drink more than this have a higher risk
for weakening bones (osteopenia). Alcohol use also increases
your risk of injuries related to falls.
- Do not smoke or use other
tobacco products. Smoking puts you at a much higher risk for developing
osteoporosis. It also interferes with blood supply and healing. For more
information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
- Cut down on
caffeine. Caffeine in coffee and soda pop may increase calcium loss from your
body and increase your risk for osteoporosis.
Injuries such as bruises, burns,
fractures, cuts, or punctures may be a sign of
abuse. Suspect possible abuse when an injury cannot be
explained or does not match the explanation, repeated injuries occur, or the
explanations for the cause of the injury change. You may be able to prevent
further abuse by reporting it and seeking help.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
- What are your main symptoms?
- How long
have you had your symptoms?
- How and when did the injury occur? How
was it treated?
- Have you ever had any injuries to the same area? Do
you have any ongoing problems because of the previous injury?
activities related to sports, work, or your lifestyle make your symptoms better
- What home treatment measures have you tried? Did home
- What prescription and nonprescription medicines
have you tried? Did they help?
- Do you have any
- Animal and Human Bites
- Bruises and Blood Spots Under the Skin
- Burns and Electric Shock
- Chest Problems
- Elbow Problems, Noninjury
- Puncture Wounds
|By: ||Healthwise Staff ||Current as of: February 18, 2013|
|Medical Review: ||William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine|
H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine