A ligament is a band of tissue that connects bone to bone. The ligaments in your elbow help connect the bones of your upper and lower arm around your elbow joint.
A sprain is an injury to the ligaments around a joint. When you sprain your elbow, you have pulled or torn one or more of the ligaments in your elbow joint.
More about your injury
An elbow sprain can occur when your arm is quickly bent or twisted in an unnatural position. It can also happen when the ligaments are overloaded during regular movement. Elbow sprains can happen when:
- You fall down and catch yourself with your arm stretched out, such as when playing sports
- Your elbow is hit very hard, such as during a car accident
What to expect
You may notice:
- Elbow pain and swelling of the joint
- Bruising, redness, or warmth around your elbow
- Pain when you move your elbow
Tell your doctor if you heard a "pop" when you injured your elbow. This could be a sign that the ligament was torn.
After examining your elbow, your doctor may order an X-ray to see if there are any fractures or breaks to the bones in your elbow. You may also have an MRI of the elbow. An MRI is a device that can take pictures of the tissues around your elbow. The pictures will show whether these tissues have been stretched or torn.
If you have an elbow sprain, you may need:
Self-care at home
Follow R.I.C.E. to help reduce pain and swelling:
- Rest your elbow. Avoid moving your arm and elbow.
- Ice your elbow for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times a day.
- Compress the area by wrapping it with an elastic bandage or compression wrap.
- Elevate your elbow by raising it above the level of your heart. You can prop it up with pillows.
You can use ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) to reduce pain and swelling. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) helps with pain, but not swelling. You can buy these pain medicines at the store.
- Talk with your doctor before using these medicines if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or have had stomach ulcers or internal bleeding in the past.
- Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle or by your doctor.
You may need to wear a sling, splint, or cast for about 2 to 3 weeks while your elbow heals. Depending on how badly it's sprained, you may need to work with a physical therapist who will show you stretching and strengthening exercises.
Most people recover completely from elbow sprains in about 4 weeks.
When to call the doctor
Call your doctor if:
- You have increased swelling or pain
- Self-care doesn't seem to help
Sanchez-Sotelo J. Lateral collateral ligament insufficiency. In: Morrey BF, Sanchez-Sotello J, eds.The Elbow and Its Disorders
Wilk KE, Macrina LC. Rehabilitation for elbow instability: emphasis on the throwing athlete. In: Skirven TM, Osterman AL, et al. eds.Rehabilitation of the Hand and Upper Extremity
Update Date 7/30/2013 12:00:00 AM
Updated by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.