Getting injured is never a fun experience and it’s always necessary to seek medical attention afterward but some injuries are more dangerous than others. Elbow injuries are particularly touchy because of the number of things that could potentially go wrong. Elbows can be damaged over time by stressful repetitive motion or all at once through an impact and/or fall. When this happens, it’s vital that you know how to respond and seek treatment immediately in order to both assess the level of damage and get you on the path toward healing and recovery as quickly as possible.
How an injury occurs makes a big difference in how you should treat it. A large number of elbow injuries occur during sports activities but they can happen at work or during normal recreation. Falling is the most likely cause of elbow injuries though any kind of impact, pressure, twisting, or even quick movement can cause unexpected damage. You should be the most worried about impact injuries as this can cause the most amount of damage to your arm. Anything else is likely to be a soft tissue problem which will be easier to treat and heal. When an injury occurs, pain is usually sudden and severe quickly followed by bruising, swelling, and potentially bleeding based on the circumstances.
Immediately after an elbow injury, there are a few things you should do no matter what kind of injury it is or how severe it seems to be. First, assess the situation and figure out if the arm is broken. If so, handle with extreme care so as not to do any further damage before the bone can be set. Next, assess and deal with the bleeding, then remove all rings and bracelets from that hand and arm as they may become much more difficult to deal with as the swelling increases.
A broken bone is one of the most severe kinds of elbow injury and should be treated with extreme care. It’s possible for a broken bone to pierce the skin and stick out visibly. If you can see a bone sticking out, do not pretend you are the girl from Heroes and just push it back in. Leave bone manipulation to the professionals and do your best to cover the area with a clean bandage instead. Once that’s done or if the bone is still inside your skin, your next concern is to stop the bleeding. Do your best working around the broken bone to bandage the injured area and slow down the bleeding.
Bandage Any Scrapes
The vast majority of falling elbow injuries result in at least a minor scrape but could potentially involve a large gaping wound. For scrapes, scratches, and abrasions, clean the area with disinfectant spray, wipes, or a little gentle soap and warm water then apply a liberal amount of antibacterial ointment. Wrap the area in a clean bandage or tape a gauze pad over the injury. For larger wounds with major bleeding, as can be caused by landing on a rock or something sharp, disinfect and rinse out the wound as best you can and begin trying to slow the blood flow immediately. Thick, tightly wrapped bandages are the key and you might need to use a tourniquet if the bleeding is bad enough. If you can’t slow the bleeding in a few minutes, call 911 for emergency medical assistance.
Assessing a Soft-Tissue Elbow Injury
If your elbow injury isn’t bad enough to involve profuse bleeding or broken bones, take a moment to thank your lucky stars, then assess the real extent of the damage. Immediately after the injury is usually too early to see a bruise but the amount of aftermath swelling should give you an idea of how badly the elbow is hurt. Carefully extend and bend your elbow to assess your level of mobility and how much pain it causes to move your elbow normally. Significant movement limitation or weakness in the arm are indications of a more severe injury while minor swelling and pain tend to signify something that will heal with rest and ice in two or three weeks.
Damage to an elbow’s soft tissue is usually related to the tendon. Tendon damage is known as a sprain which results from one or more tears in the tendon. The size and number of tears determine the severity of the sprain and potential recovery time. A very bad sprain might weaken your arm control and could possibly require surgery to repair.
Treating Soft-Tissue Elbow Injuries
Whether it came on slowly or happened all at once, all soft tissue elbow injuries can be treated the same way unless they are severe enough to need surgery which is between you and your doctor. In the immediate aftermath of a soft tissue elbow injury, your primary goal is to reduce swelling in any way you can. Compress the elbow by wrapping it carefully in an elastic bandage in a comfortable slightly bent position and begin icing. If you can, prop the elbow up above your heart to slow blood flow and help keep the swelling down. The less swelling you experience now, the less tender your elbow will be later.
Once the elbow is wrapped, iced, and elevated, get yourself to a doctor to have it examined. This is where you discover how bad the soft tissue damage is. Most of the time, the doctor will tell you to RICE (rest, ice, compress, elevate) at home and treat the elbow gently for a few weeks until it feels better. You may want an elbow brace to keep it compressed and slightly immobilized or a sling for extra support and a reminder not to use your arm until the pain is gone.
Recognizing an Overuse Elbow Injury
Beyond a sprain or strain caused by a single event like falling or twisting your elbow painfully, you can also develop an elbow injury slowly over time. These are known as overuse injuries and are incredibly common in tennis and golf players. This is usually the result of stressing your elbow and pushing your arms to their limits on a daily basis. Each small over-use isn’t enough to cause a painful injury on its own but you are slowly building up tiny tears in the tendon where it has been slightly over-stretched again and again. Eventually, enough little tendon tears result in pain, swelling, and weakness that will interfere with your daily elbow-intensive activities. If pain has been building up in your elbow over time or what seems like a minor sprain event turned into a very big pain in the elbow, these are signs of overuse injuries.
No matter what, make sure to keep off the elbow and drink plenty of water. Hydration is important for blood flow and tissue regenerations. Ice for twenty minutes every two hours for the first two days or until the swelling stops, then switch to heat. A gentle elbow massage and a long soak in a hot Epsom salt bath is perfect for encouraging blood flow.