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Sprain and strain

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What are sprains and strains?

The elbow is held together by soft tissues like ligaments, tendons and muscles. They allow your forearm to flex, extend and rotate. When abnormal forces are put on the tissues, it can cause the fibres of muscles, ligaments, or tendons to stretch or tear. This injury causes inflammation, pain, and inability to use the muscle as before and predisposes you to elbow joint problems. The term strain is usually used for muscle or a tendon, with sprains associated more with ligaments. Most cases of elbow pain are caused by strain or sprains.


What causes sprains and strains?
There are multiple causes of sprains and strains, including the following: 

  • Involuntary twisting of the forearm during sports activities

  • Trauma onto the elbow after accidents or a fall

  • Overstretching of the elbow during exercise increases tension on the elbow

  • Lack of warming up before workouts

  • Repetitive movements such as during computer work or sports



The severity of symptoms varies significantly from patient to patient. For some patients, the symptoms are not constant and may come and go. Symptoms of sprains and strains may include: 

  • Swelling and bruising of the elbow area

  • Pain 

  • Elbow stiffness

  • Pain at the elbow joint while stretching


When should I seek medical help?

You should see your doctor if you experience the following:

  • Severe pain, swelling and bruising around the elbow

  • Unable to move your elbow normally

  • Elbow pain does not improve after home care

  • Pain that occurs even when you are resting your arm

  • Increasing redness, swelling or pain in the elbow



To diagnose any strain in your elbow, your doctor will take your case history and past medical history into account. Then they will perform a physical examination on your elbow and check to see if there is any tenderness or deformity. They will measure the range of motion of your elbow and test your arm strength. Your doctor may also examine your wrist, neck and shoulder to determine if they cause your elbow pain.


Other investigations which can help your doctor confirm your diagnosis include ultrasounds or MRIs. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound scans can create better images of soft tissues and reveal small tears or stretched ligaments. They can also show fluid or inflammation in the elbow.



The goal of treatment is to reduce pain and restore function. Here are some examples of treatment: 

  • Rest. Rest the injured elbow for a few days. Restrict all activities that cause pain in the elbow. 

  • Ice packs: Apply ice bags over the sprained elbow for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours.

  • Compression: An elastic compression bandage can wrap and support the elbow to reduce swelling. 

  • Elevation: Keep your sprained elbow elevated. Place a pillow under your arm to elevate your elbow. 

  • Immobilization: A splint can help to stabilise the elbow joint.

  • Medications: Simple painkillers like paracetamol help control pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen can help reduce pain and swelling caused by inflammation.

  • Physical therapy: Strengthen your forearm muscles with exercises.

  • Surgery: Elbow sprains do not require surgery unless severe damage to the elbow or a complete ligament tear.


Prevention of sprains and strain in the elbow

There are ways to prevent sprains and strains in the elbow. Here are some examples:

  • Exercise regularly to improve muscle strength.

  • Proper technique and wearing the right gear during exercise can prevent sports injury.

  • Always warm up and stretch your muscles before exercising.

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