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Elbow Injury

Is this your symptom?

  • Injury to the elbow
  • Injury to a bone, muscle, joint or ligament of the elbow
  • Note: Muscle pain caused by overuse (too much exercise or heavy lifting) is covered in Elbow Pain.


Many elbow injuries only damage the skin. Examples of skin injuries are a bruise (contusion), cut (scratch, laceration), and scrape (abrasion):

  • Bruise: The medical term for bruise is contusion. It is caused by a direct blow to the skin and muscles. The skin is not broken and there is no cut. The skin may be puffy or swollen. Pain is usually mild to moderate. Bruises are tender to touch. The bruised skin may first look red, then purple, and finally orange-yellow. These skin color changes are from blood that leaked from tiny torn blood vessels in the bruised area. Most bruises can be treated at home. A cold pack can help reduce the pain and swelling.
  • Cut - Shallow: Shallow cuts (scratches) only go part way through the skin. They rarely become infected. A scratch is an injury to the skin from a sharp edge. For example, scratches can be caused by fingernails, a sharp nail, a piece of metal, or a branch of a tree or bush. A shallow cut or scratch can usually be treated at home. Making sure the wound is clean is the most important thing.
  • Cut - Deep: Deep cuts (lacerations) go through the skin. A laceration is caused by cutting the skin with the sharp edge of an object. This can happen from a knife, a razor, a piece of glass, or the sharp edge of a piece of metal. Making sure the wound is clean is very important. Cuts longer than ½ inch (12 mm) usually need stitches.
  • Scrape: The medical term for scrape is abrasion. This happens when an injury scrapes off the top layer of the skin. Pain is usually mild. This can usually be treated at home. Making sure the wound is clean is the most important thing.

Sometimes an injury can involve a bone, muscle, joint, or ligament of the elbow:

  • Dislocation: This is when a bone comes out of the joint. The joint always looks crooked or deformed. The pain can be severe. A person with this problem should go to the doctor right away. A doctor will treat this by putting the bone back into the joint socket.
  • Fracture: This is the medical term for a broken bone. It means the same thing as a break or crack in the bone. The pain is severe and there is often marked swelling. The type of treatment needed depends on the type of fracture. Sometimes a person with a fracture just needs a splint or a cast. A person with a severe fracture may need surgery.
  • Sprain: A sprain is the medical term used when ligaments around a joint are torn or over-stretched. Ligaments are the bands of tissue that connect bones to each other. These are common injuries from falling, heavy lifting, and sports. Pain and swelling can be mild to severe. Minor sprains often heal with time and rest. More severe sprains need a splint or a cast and take 4-6 weeks to heal. Surgery is rarely needed for a sprain. A person who cannot fully bend or straighten the elbow after an injury should see a doctor.
  • Strain: A strain is the medical term used when muscles are torn or over-stretched. A more common term for this is a "pulled muscle." Minor strains often heal with just time and rest. Surgery is rarely needed for a muscle strain.
  • Tendon Tear of Biceps Muscle: The biceps muscle is in the front of the upper arm. This muscle allows a person to flex (bend) the elbow. The biceps muscle is attached to the shoulder by two tendons. The other end of the biceps is attached to the elbow with one tendon. Surgery may be needed for severe tendon tears. This is especially true for athletes and people who need full strength in the arm.

Pain Scale

  • None: No pain. Pain score is 0 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Mild: The pain does not keep you from work, school, or other normal activities. Pain score is 1-3 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Moderate: The pain keeps you from working or going to school. It wakes you up from sleep. Pain score is 4-7 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Severe: The pain is very bad. It may be worse than any pain you have had before. It keeps you from doing any normal activities. Pain score is 8-10 on a scale of 0 to 10.

When to Call for Elbow Injury

Call 911 Now

  • Major bleeding (nonstop bleeding or spurting)

Call Doctor or Seek Care Now

  • Severe pain
  • Skin is split open or gaping and may need stitches
  • You think you have a serious injury
  • You think you need to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Can't move the elbow normally (bend or straighten fully)
  • Large swelling or bruise at the site of the injury (wider than 2 inches, 5 cm)
  • More than 60 years old and pain lasts more than 24 hours
  • Have osteoporosis and pain lasts more than 24 hours
  • Take steroid medicine and pain lasts more than 24 hours
  • You think you need to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • Last tetanus shot was more than 10 years ago, for CLEAN cut or scrape
  • Last tetanus shot was more than 5 years ago, for DIRTY cut or scrape
  • Pain from injury keeps you from working or going to school
  • Pain from injury is not better after 3 days
  • Injury is still painful or swollen after 2 weeks
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Minor bruise
  • Minor strained (pulled) muscle or sprained (stretched) ligament

Care Advice

Minor Bruise, Sprain, or Strain

  1. What You Should Know - Injury from a Direct Blow (Contusion, Bruise):
    • A direct blow to your elbow can cause a contusion. Contusion is the medical term for bruise.
    • Symptoms are mild pain, swelling, and/or bruising.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. What You Should Know - Bending or Twisting Injury (Strain, Sprain):
    • Strain and sprain are the medical terms used to describe over-stretching of the muscles and ligaments of the elbow. A twisting or bending injury can cause a strain or sprain.
    • The main symptom is pain that is worse with movement. Swelling can occur.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  3. Apply a Cold Pack:
    • Apply a cold pack or an ice bag (wrapped in a moist towel) to the area for 20 minutes. Repeat this in 1 hour and then every 4 hours while awake.
    • Do this for the first 48 hours after an injury.
    • This will help decrease pain and swelling.
  4. Apply Heat to the Area:
    • Beginning 48 hours after an injury, apply a warm washcloth or heating pad for 10 minutes three times a day.
    • This will help increase blood flow and improve healing.
  5. Wrap with an Elastic Bandage:
    • Wrap the injured elbow with a snug, elastic bandage for 48 hours.
    • The pressure from the bandage can make it feel better and help prevent swelling.
    • If you start to get numbness or tingling in your hand or fingers, the bandage may be too tight. Loosen the bandage wrap.
  6. Elevate the Arm:
    • Lay down and put your arm on a pillow. This puts (elevates) the elbow above the heart.
    • Do this for 15 to 20 minutes, 2 to 3 times a day, for the first two days.
    • This can also help decrease swelling, bruising, and pain.
  7. Rest vs. Movement:
    • Complete rest should only be used for the first day or two after an injury.
    • Staying active helps muscle healing more than resting does.
    • Continue normal activities as much as your pain permits.
    • Avoid heavy lifting and active sports for 1 to 2 weeks or until the pain and swelling are gone.
  8. What to Expect:
    • Swelling and pain from bruises start to get better 2 to 3 days after an injury. Swelling is usually gone by 7 days. It may take 2 weeks for a bruise to fade away.
    • Swelling and pain from strains and sprains start to get better 2 to 3 days after an injury. Swelling is usually gone by 7 days. It may take 1 to 2 weeks for pain to go away.
  9. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Pain becomes severe
    • Pain is not better after 3 days
    • Pain or swelling lasts more than 2 weeks
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Minor Cut, Scratch, or Scrape

  1. What You Should Know:
    • You can treat minor cuts and scrapes of the arm at home.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Bleeding: Apply direct pressure for 10 minutes with a sterile gauze to stop any bleeding.
  3. Cleaning the Wound:
    • Wash the wound with soap and water for 5 minutes.
    • For any dirt, scrub gently with a washcloth.
    • For any bleeding, apply direct pressure with a sterile gauze or clean cloth for 10 minutes.
  4. Antibiotic Ointment:
    • Apply an Antibiotic Ointment (such as OTC Bacitracin), covered by a Band-Aid or dressing. Change daily or if it becomes wet.
    • Option: A TEFLA dressing won't stick to the wound when it is removed.
    • Option: Another option is to use a Liquid Skin Bandage. This only needs to be applied once. Don't use antibiotic ointment if you use a liquid skin bandage.
  5. Liquid Skin Bandage:
    • You can use a liquid skin bandage instead of antibiotic ointment and a dressing or a Band-Aid.
    • Benefits: Liquid skin bandage has several benefits when compared to a regular bandage (such as a dressing or a Band-Aid). You only need to put a liquid bandage on once to minor cuts and scrapes. It helps stop minor bleeding. It seals the wound. This helps it heal faster and keeps out germs. However, it also costs more.
    • How To Use It: First clean and dry the wound. Spray or swab it on the wound. It dries in less than a minute and usually lasts a week. You can get it wet.
    • Examples: Liquid skin bandage is available over-the-counter. Examples include: Band-Aid Liquid Bandage, New Skin, Curad Spray Bandage, and 3M No Sting Liquid Bandage Spray.
  6. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Looks infected (pus, redness, increasing tenderness)
    • Doesn't heal within 10 days
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Over-the-Counter Pain Medicines

  1. Pain Medicine:
    • You can take one of the following drugs if you have pain: acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve).
    • They are over-the-counter (OTC) pain drugs. You can buy them at the drugstore.
    • Use the lowest amount of a drug that makes your pain feel better.
    • Acetaminophen is safer than ibuprofen or naproxen in people over 65 years old.
    • Read the instructions and warnings on the package insert for all medicines you take.
  2. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You have more questions
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the 'Call Your Doctor' symptoms.

Disclaimer: this health information is for educational purposes only. You, the reader, assume full responsibility for how you choose to use it.

Last Reviewed: 9/17/2019 1:00:28 AM
Last Updated: 3/14/2019 1:00:23 AM

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