What is an elbow ligament injury?

An elbow ligament injury occurs when ligaments which support the elbow joint are overstretched or torn due to an injury or trauma. Ligaments are strong tissues found around the joints that connect bones with other bones. They help to keep the bones in proper alignment by stabilising the joints. The elbow joint is stabilised primarily by 3 ligaments: (a) medial collateral ligament, (b) lateral collateral ligament, and (c) annular ligament. Each of these ligaments can be injured by elbow trauma (e.g. a fall, road traffic accident) or overuse (e.g. chronic injuries from sports such as cricket and baseball).

The most significant injury affecting elbow ligaments occurs in an elbow dislocation. This can occur in certain sports such as wrestling, football, rugby, and gymnastics, but is most common in high energy falls (e.g. falling from height or falling while cycling and using your arm to help “break the fall”). This type of injury typically disrupts multiple ligaments around the elbow joint.

How do I know if I have an elbow ligament injury?

Signs and symptoms of an elbow ligament injury may include:

  • Elbow pain
  • Difficulty bending and straightening the elbow
  • Swelling and/or bruising over the elbow joint
  • Elbow joint may feel loose or unstable
  • “Popping” sound when moving the elbow

How is an elbow ligament injury diagnosed?

Your specialist Doctor will obtain your health history and perform a physical examination. Your Doctor may also order radiological investigations (e.g. X-rays, MRI scans, CT scans) to help diagnose and assess the severity of the injury.

How is an elbow ligament injury treated?

An elbow ligament injury can be treated both surgically and non-surgically, depending on the severity of the injury.

Non-surgical Treatment

Most elbow ligament injuries may heal without surgery and persistent elbow instability after an injury is fairly rare. Conservative management of elbow ligament injuries or dislocation may include resting and immobilising the elbow in a cast, splint or hinged brace. The cast, splint or hinged brace helps to hold the elbow joint in a stable position while the ligament heals and are often worn for a period of 2 to 6 weeks, depending on the severity of the injury. Once your specialist Doctor ascertains that the elbow joint/ligament is stable and healing adequately, you will be able to see our Hand Therapist to start gentle elbow and wrist exercises.

Surgical Treatment

For elbow ligaments that are severely damaged resulting in joint instability, your specialist Doctor may recommend that you undergo surgery to restore the stability of the elbow joint. This is done by repairing or reconstructing the ligament and soft tissues around the elbow joint. After surgery, your elbow may be placed in a cast, splint or hinged brace for around 4 to 6 weeks to protect the ligament while it heals. Thereafter, your specialist Doctor may refer you to our Hand Therapist when it is safe to begin gentle elbow and wrist exercises.

Hand Therapy

Joint stiffness, muscle tightness and loss of function of the elbow are common problems in the early stages of recovery from an elbow ligament injury. As such, daily activities such as self-care (e.g. feeding, showering, brushing of teeth), work activities (e.g. carrying loads) and leisure pursuits (e.g. sports activities, yoga) are often affected. Hand therapy plays a pivotal role in the recovery of elbow/wrist movement, strength and function after an elbow ligament injury. Most elbow ligament injuries take around 3 to 4 months to heal before you are able to return to your normal daily activities, and full recovery from these injuries can take up to a year.

If you require protective immobilisation for your elbow, your specialist Doctor may refer you to our Hand Therapist for a customised splint. Once you are able to start therapy for your elbow and wrist, our Hand Therapist can then help you in your recovery through treatment options such as:

  • Advice and education pertaining to your condition
  • Wax therapy
  • Ultrasound therapy
  • Exercises to improve elbow/wrist joint and muscle movements
  • Management of swelling
  • Scar management
  • Strengthening exercises
  • Soft tissue mobilisation and release
  • Pain relief/management
  • Functional retraining of the elbow and upper limb
  • Personalised home exercise program