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Hyperextended Elbow

Hyperextended elbow occurs when the elbow joint moves outside its normal range of motion. This injury can be painful and take several weeks to heal.

Although anyone can experience a hyperextended elbow, it tends to occur among those who play contact sports or engage in other strenuous physical activities. People who trip and fall may also hyperextend their elbow when they reach out to cushion their fall.

A popping sound and immediate pain are two of the main symptoms of a hyperextended elbow.

Symptoms

The popping sound can help people distinguish the injury from other elbow conditions, such as tennis elbow.

Other signs include:

pain when moving or touching the elbow

  • swelling
  • redness
  • stiffness
  • loss of strength in the arm
  • limited mobility
  • muscle spasms

Severe injuries can lead to a deformity in the elbow or reduced circulation in the affected arm and hand.

Causes and risk factors

A hyperextended elbow occurs when one of the joints in the elbow (known medically as the humeroulnar joint) bends backward. This is a movement that is outside the normal range of motion.

It is most likely to happen when a person is:

  • playing contact sports, including boxing and football
  • engaging in other types of physical activity, including gymnastics and weightlifting
  • bracing themselves against the impact of a fall

Factors that increase the risk of elbow hyperextension include:

  • Involvement in vigorous activities: Sports and other exercises increase the likelihood of traumatic injury to the elbow.
  • Advancing age: The bones and ligaments become weaker with age, so are more easily moved out of their natural range of motion.
  • History of injury: A previous injury to the elbow can make the joint weaker than usual, increasing the risk of re-injury.

How is it diagnosed?

A doctor will usually take a medical history and carry out a physical examination of the arm to diagnose a hyperextended elbow.

During the physical exam, the doctor may check for pain or discomfort. They will do this by asking the person to hold their arm in different positions, with the elbow bent at different angles.

The doctor will also look for signs of bruising or swelling.

Doctors may order imaging scans, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or X-rays, to check for any damage to the soft tissues or bones.

Treatment

Treatment for a hyperextended elbow involves managing the symptoms and allowing the joint time to heal.

Treatments include RICE:

Rest

Rest allows the elbow joint time to heal. Avoid flexing and extending the elbow in the days after the injury, where possible. Take time off from sports or other activities that involve the use of the elbow.

A doctor or physical therapist can suggest the best time to return to these activities.

Ice

Applying an ice pack to the joint immediately after injuring the elbow pain and swelling.

To make an ice pack, wrap ice in a thin cloth. Apply it to the elbow for up to 20 minutes at a time. Repeat several times daily for the first few days.

Never apply ice directly to bare skin.

Compression

Applying compression to the elbow joint can restrict its movement and reduce inflammation. Elastic compression bandages specially designed for the elbow are available in pharmacies and drugstores. There are also many available online.

Alternatively, wrap a regular elastic bandage firmly around the joint to provide compression. It should never be so tight that it causes pain or numbness in the arm or hand.

Elevation

Raising the elbow above heart level is another way to reduce swelling. Hold the arm as high as possible in the first few days after hyperextending the elbow.

The simplest way to do this is to prop the elbow up on some cushions while sitting or lying down. Consider using a sling when moving around.

Pain relief medications

Several over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medications will reduce swelling and pain including:

  • aspirin
  • ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB)
  • naproxen (Aleve)
  • Elbow brace

A person might choose to wear an elbow brace to immobilize their arm and elbow joint, which encourages healing.

People can wear a brace for the first few days following injury. However, they should check with their doctor after that, as doctors do not usually recommend the long-term use of a brace.

However, some doctors may suggest using the brace during certain sporting activities to prevent re-injury.