Sprained Your Elbow? Try These PT-Approved Tips and Exercises for Relief

Learn what happens when you sprain your elbow and get tips for treating a sprained elbow, including exercises from our physical therapists.

Published Date: May 15, 2024
woman-playing-tennis-with-elbow-sprain

Sprained Your Elbow? Try These PT-Approved Tips and Exercises for Relief

Learn what happens when you sprain your elbow and get tips for treating a sprained elbow, including exercises from our physical therapists.

Published Date: May 15, 2024
woman-playing-tennis-with-elbow-sprain

Sprained Your Elbow? Try These PT-Approved Tips and Exercises for Relief

Learn what happens when you sprain your elbow and get tips for treating a sprained elbow, including exercises from our physical therapists.

Published Date: May 15, 2024
woman-playing-tennis-with-elbow-sprain

Sprained Your Elbow? Try These PT-Approved Tips and Exercises for Relief

Learn what happens when you sprain your elbow and get tips for treating a sprained elbow, including exercises from our physical therapists.

Published Date: May 15, 2024
woman-playing-tennis-with-elbow-sprain
Table of Contents

The elbow joint is considered one of the most complex joints in the body. Much of its stability comes from two strong ligaments: the medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the lateral collateral ligament (LCL). If you sprain your elbow by injuring either of these ligaments, whether through sports, a fall, or everyday activities, it can make it hard for your elbow to function as it should, says Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT, a physical therapist for Hinge Health.

While elbow sprains may not be as common as ankle or wrist sprains, they can still impact your day-to-day life when they do happen. 

The good news: Most of the time, elbow sprains can be treated at home with remedies that include stretches and exercises. Read on to find out what to do for a sprained elbow.

Tap into pain relief. Anytime, anywhere with our app.

Get exercises from a licensed physical therapist and more to relieve your pain. All right from your phone. At $0 cost to you.
Start your app tour

Our Hinge Health Experts

Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Stewart is a Hinge Health physical therapist with over 8 years of experience. She is certified in myofascial trigger point therapy.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

What Is a Sprained Elbow?

An elbow sprain is a stretch or tear of an elbow ligament, the connective tissue that attaches the end of one bone to another. “Your ligaments stabilize and support your body’s joints, including your elbow joint,” explains Dr. Stewart. Elbow sprains often occur during recreational activities, such as playing tennis or pickleball

There are three main categories of elbow sprains:

  • Grade 1 sprain (mild). “There’s some slight stretching and damage to the ligament, but you can still easily move your elbow,” says Dr. Stewart. You may notice a little pain and tenderness with movement, like when carrying groceries or throwing a ball.

  • Grade 2 sprain (moderate). There’s partial tearing of the ligament, which means you may notice a sensation of looseness and instability around your elbow joint. You can still move your elbow, but you’ll probably need to scale back and take it easy with your activities while you focus on healing. 

  • Grade 3 sprain (severe). This is a complete tear of the ligament. You may not be able to use your elbow joint at all. This kind of sprain usually requires medical attention.

Symptoms of an Elbow Sprain

Some of the most common sprained elbow symptoms include:

  • Elbow joint pain

  • Swelling

  • Redness

  • Bruising

  • Limited range of motion 

  • Trouble moving the elbow (“Your elbow will feel unstable, as if it’s loose or unable to stay in a fixed position,” says Dr. Stewart.)

  • Burning sensation around the elbow

Elbow Sprain: A Hinge Health Perspective

An elbow sprain can be a real Catch-22. It hurts to move your elbow, so you’re less likely to stay active. But exercise is key to healing your elbow sprain and ensuring you can get back to activities you love as soon as possible. “If you don’t strengthen and stretch those supportive muscles around your elbow, you run the risk of your sprain recurring,” notes Dr. Stewart.

As Hinge Health physical therapists say, movement is medicine. And the treatment for elbow sprains is no exception. General activity and more targeted, gentle exercises (like the ones recommended below) can play a big role in allowing you to maintain and improve your range of motion alongside increased stability and flexibility at your elbow joint.

If you want more support as you heal, consider physical therapy. “When you sprain your elbow, a physical therapist can evaluate multiple areas in your body as you heal,” explains Dr. Stewart. “If you don’t have enough mobility in your mid back, for example, it can cause stress all the way down your arm to your elbow. Physical therapy allows us to look at the whole picture and create a personalized exercise plan to address your entire body so you recover faster.” 

A physical therapist can also work with you to find your movement sweet spot, so that you engage in the right type and amount of movement and exercise to strengthen muscles and reduce elbow pain in the long run. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Common Causes of an Elbow Sprain

Elbow sprains happen when your arm is bent or twisted suddenly, says Dr. Stewart. Common reasons why this may happen include:

  • Sports. “We tend to see elbow sprains a lot in throwing sports, as well as in golf, tennis and pickleball,” notes Dr. Stewart. Usually, an awkward movement may force your elbow into an unusual position. You can also fall with your arm outstretched, which stresses your elbow.

  • Your workout. If you lift weights that are a little heavier than your elbow muscles are ready for, you can sprain your elbow.

  • An accident. Your elbow may be forced to bend in an abnormal position during a sport or car accident.

Regardless of the cause of elbow injuries, most people respond well to conservative treatment such as modified activities and exercise therapy, reassures Dr. Stewart.

Treatment Options for an Elbow Sprain

Most mild elbow sprains can be treated at home, says Dr. Stewart. And while you may be familiar with the R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) approach, there’s a more updated treatment strategy — P.E.A.C.E. and L.O.V.E. — that prioritizes gentle movement and activity modifications for soft-tissue injuries such as sprains. Dr. Stewart recommends the following elbow sprain treatment for the first 48-72 hours following the injury.

  • Protect your elbow but keep moving. You’re often told to rest when you’re recovering from an elbow sprain. That can cause some confusion. You can still go about your daily life — just try to limit activities that you know will irritate your elbow, reassures Dr. Stewart. For the first couple days, stick to workouts that focus on the lower body, like walking.

  • Elevate regularly to reduce swelling in the first 48 hours. Ideally, you’ll place your elbow higher than your heart. Do it for five to 10 minutes every few hours throughout your day to help keep swelling in check. 

  • Adjust anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen. It’s best to limit their use, as high doses can impact tissue healing. But if you’re in a lot of pain or your symptoms are limiting your function and movement, talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe for you to use them. Another option is an over-the-counter topical NSAID gel like diclofenac (Voltaren), which may also help to reduce inflammation.

  • Compress the elbow with an elastic bandage, or wrap to help reduce swelling. Just don’t wrap it so tight it restricts blood flow. And make sure you exercise without the wrap as you strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments around the elbow joint. 

  • Educate yourself on what your body can handle. If something hurts, scale back or modify. But if it doesn’t, it’s okay to move forward, says Dr. Stewart.

Once two or three days have passed, you’re ready for the L.O.V.E. approach. This includes:

  • Load. Gradually return to normal activities, using elbow pain as your guide. A little bit of discomfort is fine, but you don’t want to push through unacceptable levels of pain for you. As your pain improves, you can increase the load you can comfortably handle. 

  • Optimism. Sometimes, what holds you back isn’t the pain — it’s fear of pain. Physical therapy can help you work through the fear and regain function so that you can get moving again.

  • Vascularization. Movement promotes blood flow, which encourages healing. The below elbow exercises will help restructure and reform tissues as they heal. 

  • Exercise. Another reason to keep moving: It not only helps your current elbow sprain, but also may help prevent future ones.

Exercises for Elbow Sprain Recovery

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Wrist Extensor Stretch
  • Elbow Curl
  • Tricep Stretch
  • Open Book
  • Thread the Needle
  • Wrist Flexor

If you have an elbow sprain, you may be surprised to learn that movement is recommended, versus just letting it rest. “Unless it’s a very severe sprain where your entire elbow is immobilized, you’ll want to start gentle exercises within 48-72 hours of the sprain to work the muscles and increase blood flow to the area,” explains Dr. Stewart. Above are some moves that are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Don’t Be Afraid to Modify Movement

“If your elbow sprain comes from an activity like golfing or pickleball, it’s okay to take time off the sport to avoid putting excess stress on the area,” reassures Dr. Stewart. “Just make sure that you do the above exercises for a few weeks, so that when you do resume activity you can help to prevent a sprain from happening again.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

$0 Cost to you

Looking for pain relief? Check if your employer or health plan covers our program

Join more than 800K members and over 1,700 companies that trust Hinge Health to get relief.

References 

  1. Liman, M. N. P., Avva, U., Ashurst, J. V., & Butarbutar, J. C. (2021). Elbow Trauma. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542228/ 

  2. Dubois, B., & Esculier, J.-F. (2019). Soft-tissue Injuries Simply Need PEACE and LOVE. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 54(2), bjsports-2019-101253. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2019-101253

  3. Lin, K. M., Ellenbecker, T. S., & Safran, M. R. (2022). Rehabilitation and return to sport following elbow injuries. Arthroscopy, Sports Medicine, and Rehabilitation, 4(3). doi:10.1016/j.asmr.2022.01.012

  4. O’Connor, F. G. (2024, April 30). Evaluation of elbow pain in adults. UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/evaluation-of-elbow-pain-in-adults