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Elbow sprain is an injury to the soft tissues of the elbow. It is caused due to stretching or tearing (partial or full) of the ligaments which support the elbow joint. Ligaments are a group of fibrous tissues that connect one bone to another in the body.

The Elbow is a complex hinge joint formed by the articulation of three bones - humerus, radius, and ulna. The upper arm bone or humerus connects the shoulder to the elbow forming the upper portion of the hinge joint. The lower arm consists of two bones, the radius and the ulna. These bones connect the wrist to the elbow to form the lower portion of the hinge joint. A joint capsule surrounds the elbow joint which contains lubricating fluid called synovial fluid.

The three joints of the elbow are:

  • Ulnohumeral joint, the junction between the ulna and humerus
  • Radiohumeral joint, the junction between the radius and humerus
  • Proximal radioulnar joint, the junction between the radius and ulna

The elbow is held in place with the support of various soft tissues including:

  • Cartilage
  • Tendons
  • Ligaments
  • Muscles
  • Nerves
  • Blood vessels and
  • Bursae

The various movements of an elbow joint are:

  • Flexion
  • Extension
  • Pronation
  • Supination


The various causes of an elbow sprain are:

  • Involuntary twisting of the arm during sport activities
  • Traumatic injury to the elbow due to accidents or a fall
  • Overstretching of the elbow during exercise increases tension on the elbow tendons
  • Lack of warming up and stretching prior to performing exercises or sports activities
  • Medical history of previous elbow sprains make you more  vulnerable to another sprain


The common symptoms of elbow sprain include:

  • Pain, swelling, tenderness, and bruising around the elbow
  • Restricted movement of the elbow
  • Pain at the elbow joint while stretching

Elbow sprains are graded depending upon the severity of the symptoms as grade I (mild), grade II (moderate), and grade III (severe). Severe elbow sprains of grade III can lead to elbow dislocation or joint instability.


Your doctor will take a detailed medical history and do a thorough physical examination. An X-ray of the elbow may be necessary to rule out any fractures or other disease conditions. Rarely, an MRI may be ordered. 


The treatment for an elbow sprain is as follows:

  • Rest: Avoid using the affected elbow for a few weeks. Restrict all activities that cause overuse of the elbow.
  • Ice packs:  Apply ice bags wrapped in a towel over the sprained elbow for 15-20 minutes at a time to help alleviate any possible pain and swelling.
  • Compression: An elastic compression bandage is used to wrap and support the elbow to reduce swelling. Take care not to wrap too tightly which could constrict the blood vessels.
  • Elevation: Keep your sprained elbow elevated as much as possible. This can be done by placing pillows under your arm.
  • Immobilization: A sling or splint may be applied to stabilize the elbow joint.
  • Medications: You will be prescribed pain medications to keep you comfortable, and antibiotics to prevent infection.
  • Physical therapy: Learn appropriate hand exercises that strengthen your forearm muscles. Various modalities of physical therapy such as massage, ultrasound, and muscle stimulation may also be performed to improve muscle strength.
  • Surgery: Generally elbow sprains do not require surgery. It is indicated only in cases of severe damage or tear of the ligament.


There are measures to prevent elbow injury risk such as:

  • Exercise on a regular basis to improve muscle strength
  • Eat a healthy diet which includes a good variety of nutritious foods
  • Use well-checked equipment for any sport activities
  • Always warm-up and stretch your muscles prior to performing exercises or sports activities


The elbow allows us to position the hand in various directions to perform different activities. Overuse or overstretching of the elbow can cause an elbow sprain. Elbow sprains can occur at any age and are commonly seen in athletes, but can occur in non-athletes as well.  Sprains are treated with conservative treatment measures.