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What is an Elbow Strain?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An elbow strain is an injury to the muscles and tendons which surround the elbow joint. Strains are graded from I to III, depending on how severe the strain is. A Grade III elbow strain may be so severe that surgery is required to repair the tissues, while a Grade I strain may resolve with a few days of rest. As with other joint strains, it is important to make sure that the elbow heals completely before resuming normal activity levels, because it is possible to badly reinjure the elbow if it is pushed too hard too soon.

A number of things can cause an elbow strain. One is overuse, as happens to athletes who work their elbows hard during sports such as gymnastics. Another is overextension of the elbow which causes tearing in the muscles and ligaments, and a third common cause is trauma. Strains are characterized by tears in the tissue which can range from microscopic in a Grade I strain to so large they are readily visible when the elbow is opened up or imaged in a Grade III strain.

Elbow strain symptoms include muscle spasms, swelling, tenderness, loss of strength, pain, heat, and crackling noises in the elbow. People may also notice bruising if the strain was caused by trauma. The symptoms can onset suddenly, as when the elbow is overextended and pain sets in immediately, or they can develop over time as the elbow is progressively strained. People may also notice that extending, putting weight on, or twisting the elbow is painful.

Treatment for a strain requires supporting the elbow while the tears in the muscles and tendons repair. For a mild strain, the elbow may be put in a cast or sling to immobilize it while the patient rests. Pain management medications may also be offered to keep the patient comfortable while the elbow strain heals. For more serious strains, surgery may be needed to repair the tears, because the body cannot do it on its own, and the arm will need to be immobilized while the elbow heals.

Physical therapy is used during recovery to support the elbow and help it rebuild its strength. The physical therapy sessions will be tailored to the patient and the strain, with the therapist working up slowly to more demanding exercises as the joint heals. One thing to consider when starting physical therapy is what the long term goals are, as the approach may vary depending on what the patient wants to be able to do when the joint is healed.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon324647 — On Mar 11, 2013

I put weight on my mattress and twisted causing immediate pain (sound wimpy I know). That was three weeks or so ago and it still causes a bad, sharp pain if I put weight on the elbow (such as my elbows on the floor and my hands under my chin). Any ideas what this is?

By golf07 — On Jun 02, 2012

After my dad retired and began playing golf several days a week, he developed what is called golfer's elbow.

He started having pain and inflammation on the inside of his elbow. Sometimes the pain would go from his elbow down his arm to his wrist. His doctor told him that any kind of repetitive movement can cause this problem.

He hasn't let this stop him from playing golf. If his elbow is really bothering him, he will put ice on it and take some kind of pain reliever.

By Mykol — On Jun 01, 2012

I think I have right elbow strain from continual computer use. At the end of a long day, my elbow hurts and I know it is from the constant strain.

I am not on the computer much over the weekend and this gives my elbow a break. My strain is from repetitive movement and not some kind of traumatic event.

Working on the computer is my job, and it is hard for me to give my elbow the rest it needs if I want to keep working at an office job.

I haven't found any elbow pain treatment that works other than just giving them a rest as much as I can.

By ysmina — On Jun 01, 2012

@ddljohn-- You could speak to a trainer and have them watch over you during your routine to see what you're doing wrong.

Tennis and golf players as well as weight lifters experience elbow strain a lot. But there are certain precautions you can take to prevent injuries.

Most of the time, we're not holding the equipment properly and repeating the same movements over and over again causes elbow muscle strains. It's all different for different sports and exercises. So you should have a trainer check you out and give you pointers on what you can change during your routine.

By SteamLouis — On May 31, 2012

@ddljohn-- It might be a strain, but maybe a more serious one since it doesn't get better with rest and ice. You should have it checked out by a doctor as soon as possible. You don't want to unknowingly injure it more.

It could also be that you are not giving it enough time to heal. Two days of rest for a strain really isn't enough and you're still working out. You said you started working out much more than usual recently. When the muscles and tendons in our elbow are not used to carrying a lot of weight, suddenly putting a lot of weight and pressure on them can cause elbow tendon strain.

You should take it more slowly and definitely allow your elbows to get better before you go back to the gym. Keep applying ice, take pain relievers if you need to but don't ignore the pain. It's telling you that something is off.

By ddljohn — On May 30, 2012

I've been working out a lot for the past several months. Before I used to work out twice a week, now I work out different parts of my body five days a week.

I haven't had any problems except for persistently painful, sore elbows. I've tried icing them after workouts, resting for a day or two in between and it's not helping. Just yesterday, doing bench presses was extremely painful.

Do you think I've stained my elbows working out? What do I need to do to relieve the pain? I don't want to to take a long break from my routine as I'm seeing a great improvement with my body and energy levels.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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