Elbow Sprains Diagnosis and Treatment options

Short Anatomy of the Elbow Joints

Ligament injuries are a common cause of limitation in physical activity due to injury or sports. When we talk about a sprained elbow, we talk about more than just discomfort. It can be caused by a variety of factors, including injury, playing sports, or even a car accident. It is important to note that elbow sprains can occur from minor elbow injuries to more serious ones.

Exploration of Elbow Joint Components

The elbow is the joint that connects the upper arm bone and two forearm bones. It contains blood vessels and nerves. Our elbow consists of nerves, bones, ligaments, and tendons.

Ligaments are dense fibers of soft tissue. Ligament injuries commonly cause physical activity limitation due to injury or when playing sports.

Elbow Bones

Our arms combine three bones, many muscles, nerves, veins, ligaments, and joints. Three bones form the elbow:

  • The humerus (above): responsible for bending, straightening, and circular movements

  • The radius (below) is responsible for turning your palm up/down when your elbow is bent

  • The ulna (below): responsible for turning the palm up/down at any level of bending or straightening the elbow

Inside the joint, the bones are covered with cartilage. On the outside, the elbow joint is reinforced by ligaments and an articular capsule. Inside the capsule is joint fluid, which lubricates and saturates the elbow joint with nutrients.

Ligaments and Nerves

Two main ligaments, the inner and outer collateral ligaments, are stabilizers of the elbow joint. The tendons of the muscles that move the arm are located near the joint. These are the most vulnerable places in the elbow joint. If a joint is constantly overloaded, it can develop inflammation with a strong pain called epicondylitis.

The radial, ulnar, and median nerves pass through the radial joint. The ulnar nerve runs in a canal formed by soft tissues. Here, the nerve can be impinged and cause severe pain when moving.

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Symptoms of Elbow Sprains

The symptoms of an elbow sprain are very similar to fracture symptoms, so it is easy to be confused without a specialized examination. The common symptoms of elbow strain and sprain include:

  • Sharp elbow pain aggravated by movement and pressure on the damaged ligament

  • Difficulty moving the elbow

  • When a ligament is injured, it can cause soft tissue damage. For the same reason, a feeling of numbness in the area around the elbow may occur.

  • Swelling, redness, and increased skin temperature in the injured area

  • Movements limitation

  • The appearance of a hematoma in the area of ​​the elbow sprain

  • When a ligament is sprained, unlike a rupture, hematomas do not always form; they often look like subcutaneous bruises

  • When the ligament sprain occurs, a characteristic pop appears. But this happens less often than with a complete rupture of the ligament.

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Diagnosis Methods of Elbow Sprains

Diagnosing an elbow sprain involves a physical examination and imaging tests to determine the extent of the injury accurately. Sometimes, it is necessary to diagnose an elbow sprain to understand the problem more accurately.

The tests that will help assess the situation:

  • X-ray of the elbow

  • Ultrasound

  • MRI for difficult diagnostic cases

Only a professional doctor can answer whether it is a sprain or a rupture based on examination and additional diagnostics.

Another effective treatment method is the use of physical therapy. A physical therapist can help you choose exercises to strengthen the muscles and ligaments around your elbow to reduce pain, heal elbow sprain, and restore arm functionality.

It is essential to support the elbow and reduce swelling by using an elastic bandage. Try to avoid using the affected elbow for a couple of weeks.

Torn ligaments or more severe injuries may require surgery. However, most often, a mild sprain can be managed by following your doctor's recommendations and avoiding contact sports for a few weeks.

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Arthroscopic Techniques to Treat an Elbow Sprain

Elbow arthroscopy is a minimally invasive elbow surgery that does not require cutting through soft tissue. Through small punctures in the skin, a special device with a camera – an arthroscope – is inserted into the joint cavity, with the help of which the surgeon can examine the joint from the inside.

The symptoms to start arthroscopic treatment in elbow sprains can be persistent pain and swelling and pathological changes in the joint as:

The countermeasures for elbow arthroscopy:

If you have any of the following symptoms in your arm, it is better to contact the doctor immediately.

Treatment Options for Elbow Strain and Sprain

Your medical history will help a physical therapist develop the best treatment plan for rehabilitating your elbow sprains.

Elbow inflammation creates severe pain and swelling in and around the elbow. If you feel a severe elbow sprain, you can use any noninvasive sprained elbow treatments. It can be rest, ice packs, pain relievers, and bandages. 

Treatment tactics are simple: reduce swelling and pain and restore mobility.

Non-inflammatory treatments can be used depending on the intensity of the pain in the sprained elbows. It can be gels, ointments, creams, tablets, and suppositories. Duration of the course: 6 to 8 days, not more.

You can reduce swellings by using an ice pack for 10–15 minutes every 3–4 hours. Place your hand high in the first days after elbow injury.

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Sprained Elbow Pain Healing

An elbow injury can affect the upper and lower arm bones, muscles, or tendons. It is essential to identify the source of the pain to make an accurate diagnosis and determine the necessary treatments, including possible physical therapy sessions.

In sprains and partial tears of ligaments, it is necessary to:

  • Use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce elbow pain and eliminate the inflammatory process

  • If necessary, use of painkillers

  • Local use of anti-inflammatory gels and ointments to reduce swelling of soft tissues 

  • A set of therapeutic exercises to restore mobility in the elbow and strengthen damaged ligaments

  • A course of physical therapy

  • Kinesiotaping in case of elbow sprain

  • 3-4 days after the injury, compresses are acceptable to warm and quickly restore the injured elbow

These injuries with possible serious consequences, so do not self-medicate but seek immediate medical attention.

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Prevention of Elbow Sprains

To prevent yourself from repetitive accidence of elbow sprains, there are some strategies for you:

  • Regular Physical Therapy. Special exercises strengthen muscles and increase their elasticity, avoiding possible injuries.

  • Early Recognition of Pain. Be attentive to sudden pain, sprain, or other unusual feelings in your arm.

  • Proper Arm Care. Be mindful about arm movements and support the elbow during physical activity.

  • Muscles Strengthening. Special exercises to strengthen the forearm muscles will help improve the structure of the ligaments and tendons.

  • Maintaining Flexibility. Forearm and elbow stretches become an integral part of prevention. Regular stretching exercises improve flexibility and prevent possible elbow sprains during daily activities.

  • Gradual Increase in Intensity. It is very important to be careful about physical activity and control the stress on the arm and forearm. Gradually increasing your training intensity helps prevent strain on the elbow ligaments.

  • Always include a thorough warm-up and cool-down in your workouts. This prepares the muscles for activity and promotes optimal recovery, minimizing the risk of elbow sprain.

It is better to prevent the development of an elbow sprain than to treat it later. Try to avoid sudden, jerky motions that could strain the elbow, and practice techniques that prioritize joint safety.

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