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.
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 may notice:
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:
Follow R.I.C.E. to help reduce pain and swelling:
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.
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.
Call your doctor if:
Sanchez-Sotelo J. Lateral collateral ligament insufficiency. In: Morrey BF, Sanchez-Sotello J, eds. The Elbow and Its Disorders. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 48.
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. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 87.
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.
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