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Arm and elbow injuries
If you are not sure what is causing your arm or elbow pain then why not try our symptom checker? Or select from the options below:
- View all acute elbow injuries
- Elbow fracure (Radial head fracture)
- Olecranon fracture
- Median nerve injury
- Distal humerus growth plate fracture
- Ulna growth plate fracture
- Elbow hyperextension injury (bent wrong way)
- Triceps tendon strain
- Supracondylar fracture
- Ulna nerve contusion (hitting your funny bone)
- Medial elbow ligament sprain
The most common injury in the upper arm is a broken bone (humerus fracture), in the elbow is “tennis” elbow (lateral epicondylitis) and in the forearm is a broken bone (radius or ulna). The broken bones are usually treated in slings and casts and have an excellent rate of healing. Tennis elbow however can be a very frustrating injury because it can take several weeks or months to recover and is often due to overuse.
Finally, a word of warning to all parents. Another injury that is sometimes seen in young children is a “pulled” elbow. This is often caused accidentally by parents “swinging” their children around holding onto their hands. At a young age the ligaments holding the elbow joint in place are often too weak/lax (loose) and this kind of manoevre can cause a dislocation.
When should I see a doctor?
The majority of arm and elbow injuries, especially the minor ones, can be treated at home. However, if you have any of the following symptoms you should seek further medical assistance.
- Severe pain in the upper arm, elbow or forearm, especially after a fall.
- Severe swelling (oedema) around the injured area.
- An audible “crack” of the upper arm or forearm after a fall.
- A feeling when the bone at the elbow comes out of its joint (dislocates) – a common injury seen in young children that is caused accidentally (see above).
- Altered sensation in the hand or arm – such as a feeling of “pins and needles” (paresthesia) or a “loss of feeling” (anaesthesia) in the hand.
- Unable to complete your normal daily activities after the initial 72 hours.
Further medical assistance can be sought through either your local GP or a private clinician such as a physiotherapist, sports therapist, osteopath or chiropractor.
In the first instance, if you have followed the P.R.I.C.E. principles (see below) and are still unable to move the arm at all after 24 hours or still have severe pain that is not subsiding after the first 72 hours you should visit your local A&E department for further assessment. Also, if your elbow “pops out” (dislocated), feels loose (“unstable”) or locks (unable to move the elbow due to extreme pain) then you should consult your doctor or visit A&E.
Secondly, if you have applied for P.R.I.C.E. principles and still have weakness that lasts a long time (more than 2 weeks) or have ongoing discomfort in your arm or elbow, you are highly recommended to seek advice from a specialist expert - such as a physiotherapist, sports therapist, osteopath, or chiropractor - who can provide you with advice and an appropriate and effective recovery and rehabilitation program.
Immediate First Aid for acute injuries
All acute and chronic injuries should be treated using the P.R.I.C.E. therapy principle. This should be applied at home for at least the first 2 - 3 days. P.R.I.C.E. stands for Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
- Protection - Protect the injury from further damage. Where applicable, use of an arm sling or elbow support is recommended.
- Rest - Refrain from using the arm/elbow.
- Ice - The topical application of ice or cold therapy to the area of the injury can assist in reducing the symptoms of pain and inflammation.
- Compression - The use of a compression support to the arm or elbow can can help reduce swelling.
- Elevation - Keeping the hand elevated above heart level whenever possible to help reduce swelling in the hand due to the effects of gravity. This is best achieved using an upper arm sling PICTURE OF ARM IN SLING
Protection of the damaged tissue is vital to prevent further damage and enable the healing process to start efficiently and effectively. There are a number of ways to protect the injured area all with the same aim of limiting further movement and use of the joint/muscle/ligament/tendon. One way this can be achieved is using a support or splint.
In the early stages, rest is one of the most important components of the P.R.I.C.E principle but is often neglected or ignored. It does not only refer to the prolonged period of time that the athlete will be out of action but also to the immediate period after the injury.
An athlete must know when to stop training and allow the injured area to heal otherwise repetitive minor injuries can often result in a more severe injury that keeps the athlete out for much longer. If an injury is sustained during sporting activity some athletes have a tendency to 'run it off' or continue using the injured area. This implies that by continuing to participate in the exercise, the injury will simply go away. In fact, in the majority of cases this is not true and is not advisable.
Ice therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is one of the most widely known and used treatment modalities for acute sports injuries. It is cheap, easy to use and requires very little time to or expertise to prepare. The application of ice to an injury, in the acute phase can substantially decrease the extent of the damage. It achieves this in a number of different ways:
- Decreases the amount of bleeding by closing down the blood vessels (called vasoconstriction)
- Reduces pain (pain gate theory)
- Reduces muscle spasm
- Reduces the risk of cell death (also called necrosis) by decreasing the rate of metabolism
Ice is usually applied to the injured site by means of a bag filled with crushed ice which is wrapped in a damp towel. The damp towel is essential as it forms a barrier between the bag of ice and the skin and reduces the risk of an “ice burn”. DO NOT leave the ice on for more than 15 minutes as you could cause an “ice burn”.
There are a small number of areas that you should not apply ice to which include the neck, the outside bone of the elbow, the collar bone (upper end), the front of the hip (bony part) and the outer bone of the knee. The reason for this is there is a superficial nerve just below the skin in these areas that can be damaged by applying ice to it. Always check for contraindications.
Applying compression to an injured area minimises the amount of swelling that forms after an injury and should be applied for the first 24 to 72 hours from the onset of injury. Compression can be applied through a number of methods. The most effective of these is by using a compression support which is elasticated and simply fits around the elbow.
Elevation of the hand is the final principle of PRICE but is equally as important as the other 4. Elevation allows gravity to drain the fluid (oedema) away from the hand that is distal to the injury site (elbow).
Read more elbow anatomy