Elbow Strain or Sprain: Identifying the Symptoms and Getting Treatment

Elbow Strain or Sprain - Impact injury - Karate

Strains and sprains are common injuries among athletes and people who live active lifestyles. In this article, we will discuss the difference between an elbow strain or sprain, identify the symptoms, and types of treatment for the injury.

What is the Difference Between an Elbow Strain and an Elbow Sprain?

An elbow strain occurs when your forearm flexor or extensor muscles are stretched beyond their normal range and become torn. An elbow sprain, on the other hand, occurs when you stretch one or more of the three ligaments that support your elbow.

What Causes an Elbow Strain or Elbow Sprain?

A sprained elbow is usually the result of a traumatic impact to the elbow causing it to twist sharply or bend sideways or backward in an unnatural motion. On the other hand, acute or chronic overuse or overstretching of the muscles or tendons in the elbow, arm or wrist usually results in a strained elbow.

What are the Symptoms of an Elbow Strain or Sprain?

Symptoms indicative of a strained elbow include pain, swelling, tenderness, immobility, and stiffness. These symptoms may get worse when performing certain activities but may improve with rest. Elbow strains can result in loss of strength and functionality. Elbow strains are graded according to severity:

The Three Grades of Elbow Strain Severity

Grade I

  • This occurs when there is a mild pull of the forearm muscles without any indication of elbow ligament tear. The patient has the same level of strength in his/her arm despite the strain.
  • This eventually heals after a few weeks for as long as physical activity involving the injured elbow is avoided.

Grade II

  • The muscle fibers and/or tendons are torn.
  • There is a noticeable decrease in arm strength.
  • Just like a Grade I sprain, this will eventually heal after a few weeks of rest, immobilizing the elbow and avoiding physical activity using the injured arm/elbow.

Grade III

  • There is a complete tear of the muscle and tendon fibers.
  • The patient needs surgery to have this repaired.
  • This may take up to three months to heal even with rest and avoiding physical activity using the injured elbow/arm.

Symptoms of a Sprained Elbow:

Pain, swelling, tenderness and bruising in the area around the elbow, and muscle spasm. In more severe cases, a sprain can result in joint instability and dislocation or immobility. In some cases, a tearing or popping sensation is felt at the time of injury. This is also known as elbow hyperextension.

A hyperextended elbow is the result of the elbow joint bending beyond its normal range of motion. This type of injury can damage the ligaments and bones of the elbow and it can also cause the elbow to dislocate. This injury is common among athletes involved in contact sports such as football, boxing, and judo. Weightlifters, gymnasts, and tennis players are also susceptible to this injury.

In rare cases, a severe sprain can pull a fragment of bone loose and this results in a sprain-fracture. Elbow sprains are also graded according to severity. The severity of the symptoms will depend on the severity of the damage to the ligament.

The Three Grades of Elbow Sprain Severity

Grade I

  • When ligaments are stretched and/or a small tear occurs.
  • This type of sprain takes a few days to a few weeks to fully heal with rest.

Grade II

  • When the elbow joint has signs of instability and there is partial elbow ligament tear.
  • This type of sprain can take several weeks to a couple of months to heal.

Grade III

  • When there is severe elbow joint instability with complete elbow ligament tear.
  • This type of sprain usually takes months to fully recover.

When Should I Consult a Medical Professional for a Strained or Sprained Elbow?

You may need to seek help if you

  • Fall on your arm or elbow
  • Receive a blow to your elbow that causes continued pain and swelling
  • Feel pain, stiffness or have limited mobility after any activity that does not improve with home treatment, such as taking over-the-counter medications, rest, and putting ice on the affected area
  • Have severe pain, swelling and bruising around the elbow
  • Are unable to move your arm or elbow
  • Think you have fractured or dislocated your elbow,

How are Elbow Strains or Elbow Sprains Diagnosed?

Generally, a complete medical history will be done by a medical professional and he or she will perform a physical exam. He/she will ask about the symptoms and what activities may have caused the symptoms.

The patient will also be asked what relieves the symptoms and what worsens them. The medical professional will also ask the patient to gauge the severity of each symptom. He/she will place pressure on the areas of the injury to identify swelling, tenderness, bruising and pain.

The patient may also be asked to perform certain movements to determine range of motion limitations, joint stability, and to identify what reduces or increases the pain. The injured elbow will also be compared to the healthy elbow. Other procedures that may also be performed:


The doctor may recommend an X-ray to examine the bones of the elbow and rule out a fracture or dislocation of the elbow. This procedure can also determine if there is any abnormality in the bones or loose pieces of bone. It can also reveal an accumulation of fluid around the elbow which is an indication of a strain or sprain.


This may be recommended by the doctor to check for small tears or stretched ligaments which may indicate that the elbow injury is the result of chronic overuse.


This procedure can detect injuries to deep soft tissue and bones that may not be visible on an ultrasound or X-ray.

What Treatments are Prescribed for Elbow Strains or Sprains?

The treatment of elbow sprains and strains starts with:


Resting allows the injured ligaments, muscles or tendons to heal and helps prevent symptoms from getting worse. The patient should avoid lifting anything with the injured arm and elbow. The elbow should not be moved unless instructed to do so.


Applying ice to the injured elbow can help reduce swelling. The doctor may recommend icing the affected elbow for 15 minutes, three times a day for three days.


Like icing, compression can also help reduce swelling. The affected area should be wrapped with an elastic bandage or compression wrap

Elevation (of the elbow)

The elbow should be elevated by raising it above the level of the patient’s heart. This can be done easily by propping the elbow up with pillows.

In order to help immobilize the injured elbow, the patient may have to use a sling, splint, bandage, or soft cast. To ease elbow ligament pain, the doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Ibuprofen helps with pain and swelling. However, acetaminophen helps with pain but not swelling.

For Moderate Elbow strains and elbow sprains, physical therapy is recommended. Treatments may include:

  • An exercise program that will increase strength around the elbow which includes stretching exercises for the muscles of the forearm as well as a strengthening program for the entire elbow and arm. To increase the elbow’s endurance without placing additional stress on the joint, high repetition, low weight exercise training may be recommended.
  • The use of modalities (electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and heat/ice) to control pain and swelling.

For more details on what types of physical therapy treatment are available for elbow strains and elbow sprains, contact Vigor Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation today.

Our staff will assist you with your inquiries and/or help schedule your appointment.