A sprain is an injury to the ligaments around a joint. 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. When you sprain your elbow, you have pulled or torn one or more of the ligaments in your elbow joint.
More About Your Injury
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 fall with your arm stretched out, such as when playing sports
- Your elbow is hit very hard, such as during a car accident
- When you are doing sports and overusing your elbow
What to Expect
You may notice:
- Elbow pain and swelling
- Bruising, redness, or warmth around your elbow
- Pain when you move your elbow
- Elbow is unstable with particular movement
Tell your provider 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 provider may order an x-ray to see if there are any breaks (fractures) to the bones in your elbow. You may also have an MRI of the elbow. The MRI pictures will show whether tissues around your elbow have been stretched or torn.
If you have an elbow sprain, you may need:
Self-Care at Home
Your health care provider will likely instruct you to follow RICE to help reduce pain and swelling:
- Rest your elbow. Avoid lifting anything with your arm and elbow. Don't move the elbow unless you're instructed to do so.
- Ice your elbow for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times a day. Wrap the ice in cloth. Do not place ice directly on the skin. Cold from the ice can damage your skin.
- Compress the area by wrapping it with an elastic bandage or compression wrap.
- Elevate your elbow by raising it above the level of your heart. You can prop it up with pillows.
You can take 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.
- Talk with your provider before using these medicines if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney or liver disease, or have had stomach ulcers or internal bleeding in the past.
- Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle or by your provider.
You may need to wear a sling, splint, or cast for about 2 to 3 weeks while your elbow heals. If your provider recommends it, you should move your elbow to avoid stiffness. Depending on how badly it is sprained, you may need to work with a physical therapist who will show you stretching and strengthening exercises.
Most people recover completely from a simple elbow sprain in about 4 weeks.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your provider if:
- You have increased swelling or pain
- Self-care does not seem to help
- You have instability in your elbow and you feel that it is slipping out of place
Elbow injury - aftercare; Sprained elbow - aftercare; Elbow pain - sprain
Stanley D. The elbow. In: Hochberg MC, Gravallese EM, Silman AJ, Smolen JS, Weinblatt ME, Weisman MH, eds. Rheumatology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 83.
Wolf JM. Elbow tendinopathies and bursitis. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR, eds. DeLee, Drez, and Miller's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine: Principles and Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 61.
Review Date 7/28/2021
Updated by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.