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.