Elbow Pain: Is It a Sprain or a Fracture?

Maybe you’ve fallen when playing sports and landed on your elbow, or perhaps you were hit directly on the elbow. Have you been playing tennis or racquetball several times a week, and now your elbow hurts so much that you can’t play.

In any case, you should seek orthopedic treatment right away.

Dr. Michael Hood, our board-certified orthopedic surgeon at Delta Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, treats premier athletes, weekend warriors, children, teens, and seniors alike, and expertly diagnoses elbow injuries, whether they’re from an accident or overuse. 

Diagnosis of elbow fracture or sprain 

Proper diagnosis of an elbow injury is critical. Is it a sprain or a fracture? You know a fracture is a break in a bone, but what’s a sprain, exactly?

If you have a sprain, you’ve damaged the ligaments that connect your upper arm bone (the humerus) to your lower arm bones (ulna and radius) at the elbow joint. These strong bands of tissue are either stretched or torn.

Dr. Hood asks you to describe all of your symptoms. Did they gradually get worse, or is this from an injury that just happened? He also asks you about your use of the elbow and whether you engage in activities that require you to use it for lengthy periods. 

Dr. Hood conducts physical tests to help ascertain the type of injury you’ve sustained. He asks you to try to bend and extend your elbow. He checks to see whether you can rotate your forearm without pain. 

Our team takes X-rays to determine if you have a fracture and whether you have any additional injuries. Sometimes injuries in the wrist, neck, or shoulder can cause pain in the elbow. The X-rays will show if you have a fracture. 

If there’s no fracture but you have fluid around the elbow, it’s likely you have a sprain. Dr. Hood may also order an ultrasound, which may reveal small tears in a ligament and confirm the diagnosis. 

Treatment of elbow fracture

If you do have a fracture, you might not need surgery. If your bones haven’t been moved out of place, the injury may be resolved with a splint to hold your arm in place while it’s healing. 

You can expect to come back for X-rays at close intervals to ensure the bone is healing properly and hasn’t been displaced. Depending on the fracture, you may need to wear the splint for up to six weeks. 

However, if your fracture requires surgery, Dr. Hood’s team schedules you right away. Surgery is required when your bones have shifted out of place. During the surgery, Dr. Hood places the bones in the correct alignment and uses screws and/or pins to hold them in place. 

After the surgery, Dr. Hood may prescribe a pain reliever that’s stronger than what is available over-the-counter. He provides written post-op instructions. 

The RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) applies here. Your elbow will feel better when your arm is above your heart; use pillows to keep your arm comfortable. Icing the elbow 3-4 times a day helps reduce swelling and pain. Never put ice directly on your skin; use a medical ice pack or cloth. 

After surgery, you work with one of our physical therapists to help you start moving your elbow. Doing gentle stretches and exercises is critical to full recovery; otherwise, your elbow will get stiff and you won’t regain full range of motion. The exercises help to strengthen the muscles around your elbow as you regain normal function. 

If you have a physically demanding job, you’ll need to take leave or use workers’ compensation. Dr. Hood explains that for proper healing to take place, you cannot lift, pull, or push anything with the arm for several weeks. 

Treatment of elbow sprain 

Treatment of your sprain depends on its severity. If it’s a mild or moderate sprain, you use the RICE method at home. If the sprain is severe, Dr. Hood may need to perform minor surgery to repair the torn ligaments

Delta Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine is ready to be your partner in musculoskeletal health. 

For expert treatment of elbow and other orthopaedic injuries, call our office in West Memphis, Arkansas, or Colliersville, Tennessee, or book your appointment online. You can also send a message to Dr. Hood and the team here on our website.

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