How To Treat A Strained Elbow

Are you having problems with your elbow?

Perhaps it’s causing you pain or showing signs of muscle weakness.

Maybe your game is suffering, or you’ve lost some of your usual power.

There could be several reasons you might have elbow pain, ranging from elbow strain to tennis elbow. However, elbow injuries of any kind are usually a result of overuse, most often from repetitive movements in your chosen sport. So, people who play various types of sports quite often suffer from elbow pain. 

But what’s causing the pain?

Well, the elbow isn’t just one “funny bone.” There are various parts of the anatomy of the elbow that could be causing your pain. They include:

  • Ligaments of the elbow
  • Tendons  
  • Bones of the arm
  • Muscles in the arm 
  • Bursae 

The treatments differ as per the cause, but some of the most common elbow disorders we see in the Intecore PT Clinic include:

Ligament sprains and strains happen in the elbow joint ligaments. They could be caused by excess stress on the tissues (from work or sports) or trauma (from accidents, surgeries, or illness). For example, one or more of the ligaments inside the elbow may get entirely or partially torn, get stretched. Occasionally, you might even hear the ligament “pop” when you injure it.  

The symptoms of a problem with the elbow ligaments are:

  • Swelling and pain in the affected area
  • Difficulty in movement 
  • Instability in the joint

Recommended treatments for elbow ligament damage:

  • If you’re aware of the injury when it happens, try applying ice to reduce inflammation and pain, and speed up the healing process. 
  • Wearing an elbow brace and giving the area adequate rest
  • Book a consultation with a Physical Therapist – especially if the pain, stiffness, or signs of weakness last longer than seven days. 

Medial epicondylitis: You’re more likely to have heard this condition referred to as Golfer’s/Little Leaguer’s Elbow. It involves the inner tendons—some of the most common causes of this condition include repetitive activities like pitching a baseball or swinging a golf club. But the leading cause of Medial Epicondylitis is repetitive hand motions over an extended period that can lead to pain inside the elbow. In addition, wrist movements can exacerbate the pain. This type of elbow pain generally improves with heat therapy (using hot and cold packs) along with resting or using over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. 

Lateral epicondylitis: Also more commonly known as Tennis Elbow, Lateral Epicondylitis causes inflammation of the tendons of the outer side of the elbow. Certain professions involving repeated hand movements and racquet sports – like tennis, are the primary causes. 

We commonly see Tennis Elbow in people who work in the following professions: 

  • Plumbers
  • Carpenters 
  • Painters
  • Cooks
  • Autoworkers 

The symptoms include a burning sensation or pain on the outer edge of the elbow with noticeable weakness and difficulty in gripping objects. 

Recommend treatments for the symptoms of Tennis Elbow include: 

  • Physical therapy
  • Resting the arm 
  • Using a strap for the elbow or a brace 

Olecranon bursitis You may know this condition by various names like draftsman’s/miner’s or student’s elbow. This condition affects the tiny sacs of fluid (bursae) within the elbow joint that protect the protruding elbow bone. Some of the specific causes of Olecranon Bursitis include resting on the elbow for an extended time, an infection, a blow to the elbow, and arthritis. 

The symptoms of Olecranon Bursitis are:

  • Swelling and pain in the elbow
  • Difficulty moving your elbow
  • In case of infection, there may be a burning sensation accompanied by redness and inflammation. 

In most cases, doctors use elbow pads combined with medication as treatment. However, in chronic cases, there might be a need for surgery. But it’s helpful to book a consultation with a Physical Therapist to help rehab your arm/elbow. 

Osteoarthritis: This inflammatory condition affects the connective tissue (or cushioning) in the joints known as cartilage. Osteoarthritis damages the tissues in the elbow joint and wears them down over time. Osteoarthritis in the elbow occurs because the joints weaken with age or due to an elbow injury.  

The symptoms of Osteoarthritis in the elbow are:

  • Pain and swelling in the joint
  • A decrease in elbow movement due to locking 
  • During activity, you may hear a “grating” or “grinding” noise
  • You may also find it hard to bend your elbow

The treatment for Osteoarthritis in the elbow includes Physical Therapy combined with medicines (if required). In chronic cases, your doctor may recommend joint replacement, but this is extremely rare.

Dislocation or elbow fracture: Falling on an outstretched arm or elbow or any blow to the elbow can lead to a bone fracture or dislocation. In case of an elbow dislocation, the bone moves out of its normal position. In the case of an elbow fracture, the bone breaks or develops a crack.  

The symptoms of an elbow fracture or elbow dislocation include:

  • Discoloration and swelling in the elbow 
  • Severe pain when attempting to move the joint 

After an accident or injury, a healthcare worker will usually reset the bone in its original position. Then, the fractured or dislocated elbow is placed in a cast or splint. You will likely need prescribed medication to help with the pain and swelling, and possibly even surgery – depending on the extent of the damage. 

We recommend Physical therapy after the cast/ splint comes off to restore motion to the joint, maintain good function, and prevent arthritis. 

Osteochondritis dissecans: This condition is also referred to as Panner’s disease and happens when pieces of bone and cartilage get dislodged in the joint of the elbow. We generally find this condition among athletes and young people. The symptoms are a sensation of joint locking and tenderness and pain on the outer side of the elbow, along with difficulty extending the arm. The best treatment for Osteochondritis Dissecans is Physical Therapy and immobilizing the joint.  

How Are Elbow Disorders Diagnosed?

An orthopedic specialist or Physical Therapist will usually diagnose the root cause of your elbow pain by conducting a physical examination and checking your medical history. You may also need a CT scan, MRI scan or X-Ray, or an EMG (electromyography) to check your nerve function. In rare cases, you may need a biopsy of the bursa fluid inside the elbow. 

Treating Elbow Disorders

The prescribed treatment for your specific type of elbow disorder is subject to the symptoms you present with. However, most elbow pain and stiffness incidents only require conservative treatment, rest, and physical therapy. Elbow surgery is rare. But your individualized treatment may include the following:

  • Complete rest for the affected area 
  • Application of ice packs 
  • Physical Therapy to improve your range of movement 
  • Use of NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)  
  • Padding on the elbow
  • Therapeutic exercises specifically for elbow pain 
  • Steroid injections (only when necessary) 
  • Wearing braces to immobilize the elbow 

Depending on the cause of your elbow pain, we may also recommend you resume exercise to facilitate recovery and prevent future problems. But this is likely to come after a period of rest and recovery. 

When you’re ready, we teach you a set of stretches to do at home to improve movement, help relieve swelling and pain, and condition and strengthen the joint muscles to prevent a reoccurrence of the presenting problem. 

Recommended Exercises To Reduce Elbow Pain 

*If you experience pain when completing any of these exercises, stop right away and contact a Physical Therapist. The saying, “no pain, no gain,” does not apply. Pain means your body isn’t ready, and you may injure yourself further. 

You can find information about these exercises online, but we recommend learning them from a qualified Physical Therapist first. 

  • Isometric exercises: Studies have shown that isometric extension exercises for the wrist alleviate pain in the elbow. During an isometric exercise, the muscles contract and stretch without apparent movement.  
  • Eccentric exercises: This form of exercise helps extend the muscles’ length when they are under stress. These exercises relieve tennis elbow pain. Specifically, wrist extensor strengthening exercises are beneficial for elbow pain. 
  • Static stretching: When you combine static stretching exercises with eccentric exercises, they offer the best treatment for pain relief.  

Other additional studies have also revealed that strength training and exercising in water effectively reduce Osteoarthritis pain in the hips and knees. However, further research is needed to determine the benefits of these exercises for elbow joint disorders. But swimming is an excellent low-impact exercise.

Physical Therapy: The Best Cure For A Strained Elbow

At Intecore Physical Therapy, we specialize in orthopedic and sports medicine – specifically elbow disorders, so you’re in excellent hands with us. We can help you get out of pain and back in the gym, on the field, or just back to enjoying life fast.

We also offer all new patients the opportunity to book a complimentary 20-minute consultation with one of your Physical Therapists. At this appointment, you get advice on the best way to treat your elbow disorder without any financial outlay until you’re confident we’re the best team for the job. 

Andrew Vertson