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Anatomy of the Elbow

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 connect the elbow to the wrist to form the lower portion of the hinge joint. A joint capsule surrounds the elbow joint, which contains a lubricating fluid called synovial fluid. Ligaments are a group of fibrous tissues that connect one bone to another in the body.

What is an Elbow Sprain?

An 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 that support the elbow joint.

Causes of Elbow Sprains

The various causes of an elbow sprain are:

  • Involuntary twisting of the arm during sport activities
  • Traumatic injury to the elbow due to an accident or fall
  • Overstretching of the elbow during exercise, which 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, making you more vulnerable to another sprain

Symptoms of Elbow Sprains

The common symptoms of an elbow sprain include:

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

Grades of Elbow Sprains

Elbow sprains are graded depending upon the severity of the symptoms as

  • Grade I: mild
  • Grade II: moderate
  • Grade III: severe

Severe elbow sprains can lead to elbow dislocation or joint instability.

Diagnosis of Elbow Sprains

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

Treatment options for Elbow Sprains

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 packs 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 it too tightly, as it could constrict the blood vessels.
  • Elevation: Keep your sprained elbow elevated 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.

Prevention of Elbow Sprains

There are measures to prevent elbow injuries.

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