It can be very difficult to determine the severity of an elbow strain, so it's best to see a medical professional if you have an elbow sprain. You'll likely want to wear a sling to support the arm and use ice and over-the-counter pain medication to help relieve the swelling and pain. The healthcare professional who evaluates your injury will probably recommend resting the elbow for several days, although a brace or even surgery could be required in cases of severe sprains.
Any type of sprain indicates a stretching and potentially tearing of the ligaments. A sprain in the elbow may present with swelling, significant pain, a popping sound, bruising around the joint, and more severe pain if the arm is moved. Since people will likely have to transport a person with an elbow sprain to an urgent care center or hospital, there are a few initial treatments that may help make this a little easier.
First, it may be useful to create a sling for the elbow so support for the arm shifts to the neck and shoulders. Using a pillowcase, a thin sheet, or other appropriate fabric, wrap it under the injured arm and tie the fabric around the side of the neck so that the arm is held still. Sometimes, resting the arm in a sling, because it is bent, makes the person uncomfortable. When this is the case, using a stretchy bandage or wrap to keep the elbow straight may be a better choice.
Whether a sling or wrap is used, the elbow should also be iced. When available, a cold pack from the freezer is great, although frozen vegetables like peas or corn also work very well since they will sit around the joint with greater ease. Initial icing should last for 15-20 minutes, and this should be repeated in three hours. You can also take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the pain.
At the hospital, a medical professional will assess the elbow, and evaluate things like swelling and movement. It may be necessary to take an X-ray or other scans to determine degree of ligament damage. When damage is only mild, treatment might include stabilization of the elbow with a wrap, sling, or brace, if necessary. People might be told to rest the arm at home, use ice every three to four hours, and not to resume regular activities for a few days.
More severe elbow sprain may correspond to greater limits in activity. A sprain of significant magnitude would likely require a brace. If the damage to the ligaments is very severe and they are torn, the healthcare professional may recommend surgery. After surgery, you might require physical therapy when the arm is recovered so that the full range of motion is retained or restored.
Given the variety of treatments for an elbow sprain, it should not be surprising that home treatment could fall on the side of being extremely inadequate. Joints are very important, since they create much greater range of motion, so protecting them by getting medical help for an sprain simply makes good sense.