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Elbow Sprain

Your elbow is a complex joint that serves many functions during your everyday activities. Certain sports, like tennis, baseball, and wrestling, also rely heavily on the elbow.

That’s why elbow injuries, including elbow sprains, are fairly common. A sprained elbow is a ligament injury that happens when you’ve stretched the ligament too much.

Elbow sprains usually happen because of either a traumatic injury or overuse of the joint. Minor elbow sprains often can heal on their own, with at-home care. More severe sprains can take longer to heal, and torn ligaments may need surgery.

UPMC providers are experts at diagnosing and treating the whole range of elbow injuries.

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What Is an Elbow Sprain?

An elbow sprain is a ligament injury.

Your ligaments are thick, rope-like bands of tissue that connect your bones to each other. Ligaments aren’t the same as tendons, which connect muscle to bone. 

In your elbow, the ligaments connect the bones of your upper and lower arm to your elbow joint. You have ligaments on both the outside and inside of your elbow. Spraining your elbow means that you’ve overstretched or even torn one or more of these ligaments.

Sometimes people say they have a sprained arm, but chances are, it’s an elbow injury.

How common is a sprained elbow?

Sprained elbows are common, especially among athletes.

One study looked at elbow injuries among NCAA athletes from multiple sports over a five-year period. Researchers found that ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries were the most common, representing more than 25% of all elbow injuries.

What are the types of elbow sprains?

Doctors grade sprains by how severe they are:

  • Grade I sprains mean the ligament is stretched but not torn. These sprains can hurt, but you can usually still move your elbow.
  • Grade II sprains mean the ligament has partially torn. You usually have more pain and loss of range of motion.
  • Grade III sprains mean the ligament has completely torn. You usually can’t use the joint or put any weight on it.

What causes you to sprain your elbow?

You can sprain your elbow when you suddenly put too much force on it. This can happen when you:

  • Fall on an outstretched arm.
  • Take a direct hit or blow to your elbow.
  • Overuse your elbow, such as with repeated lifting, yard work, or operating heavy equipment.
  • Make a sudden motion or twist your arm at the elbow.

What are elbow sprain risk factors and complications?

Anyone can sprain their elbow, but some people are more likely to get this injury.

Elbow sprain risk factors

The most common elbow sprain risk factors are:

  • Playing sports that overuse the elbow, especially tennis, golf, and baseball.
  • Playing sports where you’re likely to take hard hits, like football, wrestling, and other contact sports.
  • Doing activities that can lead to overuse, like weightlifting.
  • Having a job that involves repetitive motion, such as manual labor. 

Elbow sprain complications

Severe sprains can make your elbow unstable, which can make you more likely to re-sprain the ligament.

If you tear a ligament and don’t get medical attention, it may not heal properly. This can mean chronic pain and loss of mobility of the joint.

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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Elbow Sprain?

The signs and symptoms of an elbow sprain can happen right after you injure your elbow, or they may develop shortly after.

Sprained elbow symptoms include:

  • Pain in the elbow, either while resting or during movement.
  • Swelling in your elbow.
  • Redness and/or bruising in your elbow.
  • Burning sensation around the elbow.
  • Difficulty moving your elbow.
  • Limited range of motion of your elbow.

When should I see a doctor about my sprained elbow symptoms?

If you can’t move your elbow or put any weight on it, you should seek care at either an emergency room or a same-day orthopaedic clinic.

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How Do You Diagnose Elbow Sprains?

A primary care doctor can diagnose an elbow sprain. But for specialized care, consider seeing a sports medicine or orthopaedic doctor. UPMC Orthopaedic Care is leading the way in treating many elbow injuries. 

What to expect during your visit

  • When you see your doctor about an elbow sprain, they'll:
  • Ask about the severity and location of your pain.
  • Ask about what caused the injury (if it was a fall or hit) or about what sports you play.
  • Take a medical history, including past injuries.
  • Test your range of motion in your elbow.
  • Touch your elbow to see how tender it is.

Tests to diagnose an elbow sprain

You may not need any imaging tests because doctors often can diagnose a sprain by just examining your elbow.

If they want to check for ligament damage or rule out a fracture, your doctor may order:

  • MRI. An MRI can show damage to your soft tissues, like tendons and ligaments. It’s more detailed than an x-ray.
  • Ultrasound. An ultrasound can help your doctor tell if you have an elbow sprain, or if it’s a muscle strain (tear).
  • X-ray. An x-ray can spot any breaks in the bones of your elbow.

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How Do You Treat Elbow Sprains?

The best way is to start with the most conservative treatment. 

At-home treatment

You can usually treat mild sprains at home, by following these steps:

  • Resting your elbow.
  • Applying ice or cold packs for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, as often as two times an hour, for the first 72 hours.
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or NSAIDs (like ibuprofen or naproxen).
  • Doing gentle range-of-motion exercises and stretching to prevent stiffness.

You may need to wear a sling for a few weeks to keep your arm and elbow from moving. Your doctor may also suggest a cast or split, but usually only if you have severe pain. 

As soon as you start feeling better, you can return to your activities. But you should take it easy for a while.


If you have a grade III sprain, where you’ve torn your ligament, you may need surgery. Your orthopaedic surgeon will talk to you about the different options. This includes surgery for elbow ligament reconstruction. 

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Learn More About Elbow Sprains 

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