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Elbow Injuries


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Elbow Injuries

Overview

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 feeling can be intense, but it's not serious. It will go away on its own. Maybe your elbow has become sore after activity. Elbow injuries can be minor or serious. They 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 slowly or during everyday activities.

Elbow injuries occur most often during:

  • Sports or recreational activities.
  • Work-related tasks.
  • Work or projects around the home.
  • Falls.

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, and soccer. The risk is also higher in high-speed sports such as biking, in-line skating, skiing, hockey, snowboarding, and skateboarding. Elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers are the body areas affected the most. Any injury in a child or teen that occurs near a joint may injure the growing end (growth plate) of long bones. It needs to be checked by a doctor.

Older adults have a higher risk for injuries and fractures. That's 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 injury.

Sudden (acute) injury

An acute injury may be caused by a direct blow, penetrating injury, or fall. Or it can happen when you twist, jerk, jam, or bend an elbow in a way that isn't normal. Pain may be sudden and severe. Bruising and swelling may occur soon after the injury. Acute injuries include:

  • Bruises from a tear or rupture of small blood vessels under the skin.
  • Injuries to ligaments. These are the ropy fibers that connect bones to bones around joints.
  • Injuries to tendons. They connect muscles to bones.
  • Injuries to joints (sprains) that stretch or tear the ligaments.
  • Pulled muscles (strains) caused by overstretching the muscles.
  • 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 joint.
  • Dislocations of the elbow joint. (This means it's out of its normal position.)

Overuse injuries

Overuse injuries occur when too much stress is placed on a joint or other tissue. This can happen when you overdo an activity or repeat an activity over and over. Overuse injuries include:

  • Bursitis. Swelling behind the elbow may be olecranon bursitis. This affects the olecranon bursa at the back of the elbow.
  • Tendinosis. This 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. It's most often caused by overuse of the forearm muscles. This overuse may occur during sports, such as tennis, swimming, golf, and sports involving throwing. Or it may occur when you do certain jobs, such as carpentry or plumbing, or when you do daily activities, such as lifting objects or gardening.
    • Soreness or pain in the inner (medial) part of the elbow may be golfer's elbow. In children who do sports that involve throwing, the same elbow pain may be called Little Leaguer's elbow.
  • Pinched nerves, such as ulnar nerve compression. This is the pinching of the ulnar nerve near the elbow joint. It usually occurs with repeated motions.

An 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 often 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 can't be explained or doesn't match the explanation, repeated injuries occur, or the explanations for the cause of the injury change.

Treatment

Treatment for an elbow injury may include first aid and a brace, splint, or cast. It also may include physical therapy and medicines. In some cases, surgery is needed. Treatment depends on:

  • The location and type of injury, and how bad it is.
  • How long ago the injury occurred.
  • Your age, health condition, and activities, such as work, sports, or hobbies.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have an elbow injury?
Yes
Elbow injury
No
Elbow injury
How old are you?
Less than 5 years
Less than 5 years
5 years or older
5 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female

The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.

  • If you are transgender or nonbinary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
  • If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
  • If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Has it been more than a month since the elbow injury?
Yes
Elbow injury over a month ago
No
Elbow injury over a month ago
Have you had elbow surgery in the past month?
If a cast, splint, or brace is causing the problem, follow the instructions you got about how to loosen it.
Yes
Elbow surgery in the past month
No
Elbow surgery in the past month
Have you had a major trauma in the past 2 to 3 hours?
Yes
Major trauma in past 2 to 3 hours
No
Major trauma in past 2 to 3 hours
Do you have severe bleeding that has not slowed down with direct pressure?
Yes
Severe bleeding
No
Severe bleeding
Do you have symptoms of shock?
Yes
Symptoms of shock
No
Symptoms of shock
Are you having trouble moving your arm?
Pain or swelling can limit movement.
Yes
Difficulty moving arm
No
Difficulty moving arm
Can you move the elbow at all?
Yes
Able to move the elbow
No
Unable to move the elbow
Have you had trouble moving your arm for more than 2 days?
Yes
Difficulty moving arm for more than 2 days
No
Difficulty moving arm for more than 2 days
Is there any pain in the elbow?
Yes
Elbow pain
No
Elbow pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
5 to 10: Moderate to severe pain
Moderate to severe pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
Has the pain:
Gotten worse?
Pain is increasing
Stayed about the same (not better or worse)?
Pain is unchanged
Gotten better?
Pain is improving
Do you have any pain in your elbow?
Yes
Elbow pain
No
Elbow pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
Has the pain:
Gotten worse?
Pain is getting worse
Stayed about the same (not better or worse)?
Pain is unchanged
Gotten better?
Pain is getting better
Has the pain lasted for more than 2 days?
Yes
Pain for more than 2 days
No
Pain for more than 2 days
Is the arm blue, very pale, or cold and different from the other arm?
If the arm is in a cast, splint, or brace, follow the instructions you got about how to loosen it.
Yes
Arm blue, very pale, or cold and different from other arm
No
Arm blue, very pale, or cold and different from other arm
Was the elbow twisted or bent out of its normal position, even if it is back in place now?
Yes
Elbow is or was out of its normal position
No
Elbow is or was out of its normal position
Do you have weakness, numbness, or tingling in your arm or hand that has lasted more than an hour?
Weakness is being unable to use the arm or hand normally no matter how hard you try. Pain or swelling may make it hard to move, but that is not the same as weakness.
Yes
Numbness, weakness, or tingling for more than 1 hour
No
Numbness, weakness, or tingling for more than 1 hour
Do you suspect that the injury may have been caused by abuse?
This is a standard question that we ask in certain topics. It may not apply to you. But asking it of everyone helps us to get people the help they need.
Yes
Injury may have been caused by abuse
No
Injury may have been caused by abuse
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Do you think the problem may be causing a fever?
Some bone and joint problems can cause a fever.
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Is there any swelling or bruising?
Yes
Swelling or bruising
No
Swelling or bruising
Did you have swelling or bruising within 30 minutes of the injury?
Yes
Swelling or bruising within 30 minutes of injury
No
Swelling or bruising within 30 minutes of injury
Has swelling lasted for more than 2 days?
Yes
Swelling for more than 2 days
No
Swelling for more than 2 days
Have you had symptoms for more than a week?
Yes
Symptoms for more than a week
No
Symptoms for more than a week

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Major trauma is any event that can cause very serious injury, such as:

  • A fall from more than 10 ft (3.1 m)[more than 5 ft (1.5 m) for children under 2 years and adults over 65].
  • A car crash in which any vehicle involved was going more than 20 miles (32 km) per hour.
  • Any event that causes severe bleeding that you cannot control.
  • Any event forceful enough to badly break a large bone (like an arm bone or leg bone).

With severe bleeding, any of these may be true:

  • Blood is pumping from the wound.
  • The bleeding does not stop or slow down with pressure.
  • Blood is quickly soaking through bandage after bandage.

With moderate bleeding, any of these may be true:

  • The bleeding slows or stops with pressure but starts again if you remove the pressure.
  • The blood may soak through a few bandages, but it is not fast or out of control.

With mild bleeding, any of these may be true:

  • The bleeding stops on its own or with pressure.
  • The bleeding stops or slows to an ooze or trickle after 15 minutes of pressure. It may ooze or trickle for up to 45 minutes.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

When an area turns blue, very pale, or cold, it can mean that there has been a sudden change in the blood supply to the area. This can be serious.

There are other reasons for color and temperature changes. Bruises often look blue. A limb may turn blue or pale if you leave it in one position for too long, but its normal color returns after you move it. What you are looking for is a change in how the area looks (it turns blue or pale) and feels (it becomes cold to the touch), and this change does not go away.

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

Pain in children under 3 years

It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.

Pain in children 3 years and older

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the child can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain. No one can tolerate severe pain for more than a few hours.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt the child's normal activities and sleep, but the child can tolerate it for hours or days.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The child notices and may complain of the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt his or her sleep or activities.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Shock is a life-threatening condition that may quickly occur after a sudden illness or injury.

Adults and older children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:

  • Passing out (losing consciousness).
  • Feeling very dizzy or lightheaded, like you may pass out.
  • Feeling very weak or having trouble standing.
  • Not feeling alert or able to think clearly. You may be confused, restless, fearful, or unable to respond to questions.

Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly after a sudden illness or injury.

Babies and young children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:

  • Passing out (losing consciousness).
  • Being very sleepy or hard to wake up.
  • Not responding when being touched or talked to.
  • Breathing much faster than usual.
  • Acting confused. The child may not know where he or she is.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Put direct, steady pressure on the wound until help arrives. Keep the area raised if you can.

Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. Or they might be concerned about the cost. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Postoperative Problems
Elbow Problems, Noninjury

Self-Care

First aid for a possible broken bone

Most minor elbow injuries will heal on their own, and home treatment is usually all that's needed. But if you think that you might have a more severe injury, use first aid until you can be seen by a doctor.

  • If a bone is sticking out of your skin, don't try to push it back into your skin. It's better to leave the bone alone and cover the area with a clean bandage.
  • Control bleeding with direct pressure to the wound.
  • Remove all rings, bracelets, watches, and any other jewelry from the injured arm right away. It may be hard to remove the jewelry after swelling starts. And that can cause other serious problems, such as a compressed nerve or restricted blood flow.
  • Splint your injured arm without trying to straighten it. Loosen the wrap around the splint if there are signs that the wrap is too tight. Signs include numbness, tingling, increased pain, swelling, and cool skin below the wrap. A problem called compartment syndrome can occur.

Minor elbow injury

Try the following tips to help relieve elbow pain, swelling, and stiffness.

  • Remove all jewelry.

    Remove rings, bracelets, watches, and any other jewelry that goes around the wrist or fingers of the injured arm. It will be hard to remove the jewelry after swelling starts.

  • Rest.

    It's important to rest and protect the injured or sore area. Stop, change, or take a break from any activity that may be causing your pain or soreness.

  • Use ice.

    Ice will reduce pain and swelling. Apply ice or cold packs right away to prevent or reduce swelling. Apply the ice or cold pack for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 or more times a day.

  • Wrap the injured or sore area.

    Compression, or wrapping the area with an elastic bandage (such as an Ace wrap), will help reduce swelling. Don't wrap it too tightly, because that can cause more swelling below the affected area. Loosen the bandage if it gets too tight. Signs that the bandage is too tight include numbness, tingling, increased pain, coolness, and swelling in the area below the bandage.

  • Elevate the injured or sore area.

    Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to help reduce swelling. Prop up the area on pillows while you apply ice and anytime you sit or lie down.

  • Support your elbow.

    Wear a sling for the first 48 hours after the injury if it makes you more comfortable and supports the injured area.

    Use an elbow support, such as an elbow sleeve or forearm wrap. It 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 directions on the package for using the brace.

  • Avoid things that might increase swelling.

    For the first 48 hours after your injury, avoid things that might increase swelling. These things include hot showers, hot tubs, hot packs, and drinks that contain alcohol.

  • Apply heat.

    After 48 to 72 hours, if your swelling is gone, apply heat. You can start gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help restore and keep flexibility. Some experts advise switching between heat and cold treatments.

  • Rub the area.

    Gently massage or rub the area to relieve pain and encourage blood flow. Don't massage the injured area if it causes pain.

  • Start exercises using the MSA process (gentle exercise).

    MSA stands for movement, strength, and alternate activities.

    • Movement. Resume a full range of motion as soon as you can after an injury. After 24 to 48 hours of rest, start moving the injured area. Stop any activity if it causes pain, and give the injured or sore area more rest. Gentle stretching will prevent scar tissue that may decrease movement.
    • Strength. When the swelling is gone and range of motion is restored, slowly start to strengthen the injured or sore 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. Hold each squeeze for about 5 seconds. After 2 to 3 weeks of hand grip exercises, you may start 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. This includes activities or sports that don't strain the injured or sore area. If certain activities cause pain, stop doing them. But keep doing your other exercises.
  • Don't smoke or use other tobacco products.

    Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair.

If you need to use a wrap or sling for more than 48 hours, you may have a more serious injury that needs to be checked by a doctor.

Signs of possible abuse

Most injuries are not caused by abuse. But bruises are often the first sign of possible abuse. Suspect physical abuse of a child or vulnerable adult when:

  • Any injury cannot be explained or does not match the explanation.
  • Repeated injuries occur.
  • Explanations change for how the injury happened.

You may be able to prevent further injuries by reporting abuse. Seek help if:

  • You suspect child abuse or elder abuse. Call your local child or adult protective agency, police, or a health professional, such as a doctor, nurse, or counselor.
  • You or someone you know is a victim of intimate partner violence (IPV).
  • You have trouble controlling your anger with a child or other person in your care.

When to call for help during self-care

Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:

  • New or worse pain or swelling.
  • New signs of infection, such as redness, warmth, pus, or a fever.
  • New or worse numbness, tingling, or cool and pale skin.
  • Movement or strength decreases.
  • Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.

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Credits

Current as of: March 9, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.