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Elbow Sprains, Strains and Spasms

Elbow Sprain

A sprain is a wrenched joint  with partial rupture or other injury of its attachments and without total dislocation of bones. A few fibers, tendons or ligaments at the joint may be torn.

The elbow's muscles can become stiff or tight in response to heavy elbow activity. The result is usually minor, short-term achiness. However, muscle tightness does diminish the elbow's range of motion, which, unless the muscles are warmed up and stretched, puts the elbow at risk of injury when called upon to push beyond that range. The cellular and chemical responses to such excessive stress almost inevitably lead to muscle inflammation and pain, which increase if the stress is unrelieved.

The tearing of elbow muscles may result from direct trauma, overuse of the muscle (from engaging in sports or work-related activity), or poor body mechanics.

Elbow Strain

A muscle strain, sometimes referred to as a "pulled muscle," occurs when the muscle has been over stretched or overexerted and may have microscopic tearing. When the tearing is more severe, it is called a muscle tear, which may be partial or complete. The symptoms of strains and tears vary only in degree and may include pain, inflammation, bleeding into the surrounding tissues, and muscle spasm.

Elbow Spasms

Strains and tears often trigger muscle spasm, which is the sudden, intense contraction of muscle tissue. Although very painful, a muscle spasm is the body's natural mechanism for protecting injured tissue by acting as a brace. Because it is a protective mechanism, spasms are present in a wide range of elbow disorders.


A common cause of elbow injury is overuse during sports-related activities such as baseball, football, racquetball, or tennis or because of poor body mechanics such as lifting heavy objects incorrectly. Because these sprains are often the result of repetitive throwing motions, this condition is sometimes called "Little League Elbow." A mild sprain will produce pain and swelling around the joint and possibly weakness in the muscles; over time the joint may become stiff and restricted. In more severe cases, there may be a feeling of slippage in the joint.


The signs of a sprain are:

  • Rapid swelling
  • Heat
  • Discoloration
  • Limitation of function
  • Pain, usually extensive and increased when moving the elbow

Home Treatment


It is usually recommended that cold packs are initially applied to the injured area for 15-20 minute intervals to relieve inflammation and swelling. This application can be repeated two or three times, followed by hot packs to help relax muscles in the area of the injury. Moist hot packs are suggested to avoid skin burns. If the skin is able to tolerate pain gels, they can provide temporary relief of joint or muscular pain.


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