Elbow Injuries

The information here will help you understand your elbow injury, guide you through your rehabilitation and explain what you can do to maximise your recovery.

Advice for a recent elbow injury

In the first 72 hours, it’s important to:

  • rest your elbow
  • elevate your arm using a pillow, cushion or sling
  • apply a cold pack regularly
  • protect your limb by wearing your sling and/or plaster cast
  • use your elbow brace, if you have been given one, to apply compression

It’s helpful to remember PRICER:

  • Protect
  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevate
  • Rehabilitation

Medication

The Emergency Department (ED) or a Minor Injuries Unit (MIU) may have prescribed you with some pain relief. Take these as instructed to help manage the pain.

If you do not feel that this medication is helping, talk to us during your appointment in Fracture Clinic, or your GP, about an alternative option.

Cold packs

Ice is a great natural anaesthetic that helps relieve pain and controls swelling. Apply ice packs or a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a wet thin towel to your injured area for up to 15 minutes every few hours.

  • Do not place ice in direct contact with the skin.
  • Do not leave the ice pack on for more than 20 minutes at a time in one hour.

Rest and elevation

It’s important to rest your injured area as much as possible in the first 24 to 72 hours.

It’s normal to experience swelling after your injury which is often worse at the end of the day.

Elevation reduces swelling, which in turn relieves pain and speeds up your healing. Keep your injured area elevated as much as possible during the first 24 to 72 hours.

If you have been given a sling, use it to keep your injured area elevated. You may find it more comfortable to use pillows to elevate it during the evening and at night.

If you have a lower limb injury, try to keep your feet elevated above the level of your hip.

Smoking

Medical evidence suggests that smoking prolongs fracture healing time. In extreme cases it can stop healing altogether. Stopping smoking during the healing phase of a fracture will help ensure optimal recovery from this injury.

For advice on stopping smoking and local support available, please discuss this with your GP or go to the NHS Smoke Free website.

Helping your recovery

Being healthy can help you recover from your injury faster. Eating well, staying hydrated and keeping as active as possible will all help. We’ve put together a set of videos on all the things you can do to help you recover as quickly as possible.

Care plans

Below we have care plans for different types of elbow injuries, including information that will help you understand your injury, guide you through your rehabilitation and explain what you can do to maximise your recovery.

Your diagnosis should have been made by an orthopaedic consultant or one of the team working under the supervision of the consultant team. The information in these care plans is to help you understand your diagnosis and is not exhaustive.

Non-urgent advice: Please note:

Your consultant may give you a different, personalised care plan based on your injury and whether you need imaging (x-ray, CT scan, MRI, or an ultrasound) or an operation.


1. Soft tissue elbow injury

What is your injury?

You have sprained the soft tissues (the ligaments and/or muscles) in your elbow. Your specific injury will be explained in more detail to you.

Healing

It normally takes up to 12 weeks to heal, but this may differ depending on your individual circumstances.

Follow up

Injuries like yours usually heal well on their own over time, so most people won’t need a follow-up. If you do, we’ll contact you by phone.

If you still feel you’d like to see someone, you can book an open appointment at any time in the six months after your injury. Please call 01736 758892 to make an appointment.

Please call the Fracture Clinic on 01872 253091 if:

  • you’re unable to follow this rehabilitation plan
  • you’re having problems with your sling
  • you have any questions
  • you notice pain in an area other than your elbow
  • you’re still experiencing pain after 12 weeks.

Wearing your sling

Use your sling for comfort after your injury. You can take it off to wash, dress and exercise. You don’t need to wear it at night.

Stop using the sling as soon as you feel comfortable to do so. Early, gentle movement will help stop your elbow getting stiff.

Early movement

Elbows get stiff very quickly so it’s important to start the exercises below as soon as possible. Avoid heavy lifting for at least 6 weeks.

You can do light activities when your pain has settled.

Exercises

Do the following exercises 4-5 times a day. Repeat each exercise 10 times.

Take your sling off to do them and don’t forget to take your pain relief 30 minutes before you do them.


2. Non-displaced radial head and neck fracture

What is your injury?

It’s a break to a bone in your elbow.

Person pointing to a bone in their elbow

Healing

It normally takes up to 12 weeks to heal, but this may differ depending on your individual circumstances. At the start, your elbow may be swollen and you will have some pain.

Follow up

Most non-displaced radial head and neck fractures heal well with time. If we need to follow up with you, either on the phone or face to face, we’ll contact you by phone to arrange it.

If you feel you’d like to see someone, you can book an open appointment at any time in the six months after your injury. Please call 01736 758892 to make an appointment.

Please call the Fracture Clinic on 01872 253091 if:

  • you’re unable to follow this rehabilitation plan
  • you have any questions
  • you’re struggling with your sling
  • you notice pain in an area other than your elbow.

Wearing your sling

Wear your sling for comfort in the first 1 to 2 weeks. You can take it off to wash, dress and exercise. You don’t need to wear it at night.

Early movement

Elbows get stiff very quickly so it’s important to start the exercises below as soon as possible. Avoid lifting anything more than the weight of a cup of tea for the first 6 weeks.

You can do light activities when your pain has settled.

Exercises

Regular exercise will prevent stiffness and help to recover movement.

Do these exercises for 6 weeks after your injury. Try to do them every hour. If this is too painful, start with 3 to 4 times a day and increase as pain allows. Taking your pain relief 30 minutes before you do your exercises can help as long as you don’t take them more often than prescribed.

After 6 to 12 weeks

Your fracture should now be mostly healed. You can gradually increase your day-to-day activities. Be guided by any pain or discomfort you may still have.

It’s normal to still have some mild discomfort. This may continue for 3 to 6 months.

More information

You can find out more about your non-displaced radial head and neck fracture, and see demonstrations of the exercises in this video from Brighton & Sussex University Hospitals: Proximal Radius Fracture.


3. Non-displaced olecranon fracture

What is your injury?

It’s a break to a bone in your elbow. Non-displaced means the bone has not moved.

Healing

It normally takes up to 12 weeks to heal, but this may differ depending on your individual circumstances.

Feeling and movement of your hand

You will have been fitted with a plaster and given a sling. While you’re in plaster, it’s important that you can always move your fingers and that you have full feeling in your hand.

If you lose movement or feeling in your fingers, thumb or hand, please go to the Emergency Department (ED) or Minor Injuries Unit (MIU) immediately for your plaster to be checked.

Follow up

You’ll see a specialist 1 to 2 weeks after your injury. We’ll contact you about this within four days of your injury.

The specialist will remove your cast and examine your arm. You might need another x-ray and may be fitted with another cast. The specialist will explain the next stage of your recovery.

You’ll also have a physiotherapy telephone appointment.

You can also book an open appointment at any time in the six months after your injury. Please call 01736 758892 to make an appointment.

Please call the Fracture Clinic on 01872 253091 if:

  • if you haven’t heard from us about your follow-up appointment four days after your injury
  • you’re unable to follow this rehabilitation plan
  • you have any questions
  • you’re struggling with your sling or cast
  • you notice pain in an area other than your elbow.

Early movement

Elbows get stiff very quickly so it’s important to start the exercises below as soon as possible. Avoid lifting anything more than the weight of a knife and fork for the first 6 weeks.

You can do light activities when your pain has settled.

Exercises

Regular exercise will prevent stiffness and help to recover movement. Do these exercises little and often. Don’t forget to take your pain relief 30 minutes before you do them.

Exercises to do immediately

Exercises for after your cast has been removed

More information

You can find out more about your olecranon fracture, and see demonstrations of the exercises in this video from Brighton & Sussex University Hospitals.


4. Coronoid process fracture

What is your injury?

It’s a break to a bone in your elbow.

Person pointing to a bone in their elbow

Healing

It normally takes up to 12 weeks to heal, but this may differ depending on your individual circumstances.

Follow up

Most coronoid process fractures heal well with time. We’ll contact you by phone if you need further x-rays or follow-up appointments. Some coronoid process fractures may need an operation to fix the bones together. If you do need surgery, a surgeon will discuss it with you. You can find out more about having an operation on our surgery for fractures and soft tissue injuries page.

If you feel you need to see someone, you can book an open appointment at any time in the six months after your injury. Please call 01736 758892 to make an appointment.

Please contact the Fracture Clinic on 01872 253091 if:

  • you’re concerned about your symptoms
  • you’re unable to follow this rehabilitation plan
  • you’re struggling with your sling
  • you notice pain in an area other than your elbow.

Wearing your sling

Wear your sling for comfort in the first 2 weeks. You can take it off to wash, dress and exercise. You don’t need to wear it at night.

Early movement

Elbows get stiff very quickly, so it’s important to start the exercises below as soon as possible. Avoid lifting anything more than the weight of a knife and fork for the first 6 weeks.

You can do light activities when your pain has settled.

Exercises

Regular exercise will prevent stiffness and help to recover movement.

Do these exercises for 6 weeks after your injury. Try to do them every hour. If this is too painful, start with 3 to 4 times a day and increase as pain allows. Taking your pain relief 30 minutes before you do your exercises can help as long as you don’t take them more often than prescribed.

After 6 to 12 weeks

Your fracture should now be healed.

You can gradually increase your day-to-day activities. Be guided by any pain or discomfort you may still have.

It’s normal to still have some mild discomfort. This may continue for 3 to 6 months.

Avoid lifting heavy objects and contact sports until 12 weeks after your injury.

More information

You can find out more about your coronoid process fracture, and see demonstrations of the exercises in this video from Brighton & Sussex University Hospitals.


5. Elbow dislocation

What is your injury?

It’s a dislocation in your elbow. This means that your elbow came out of its joint and was not in the right place. You will have had help in the ED putting your elbow back in joint. The soft tissues and ligaments stabilising your elbow will have been stretched at the time of your injury.

Healing

It normally takes up to 12 weeks to heal, but this may differ depending on your individual circumstances.

Follow up

You will see a specialist in the Fracture Clinic 1 to 2 weeks after your injury. They will examine the stability of your elbow and will explain the next stage of your rehabilitation.

Some elbow dislocations will need an operation to realign the bones and/or repair the ligaments. If you do need surgery, a surgeon will discuss it with you. You can find out more about having an operation on our surgery for fractures and soft tissue injuries page.

You can also book an open appointment at any time in the six months after your injury. Please call 01736 758892 to make an appointment.

Please call the Fracture Clinic on 01872 253091 if:

  • You haven’t heard from us about your follow-up by 4 days after your injury
  • you’re unable to follow this rehabilitation plan
  • you have any questions
  • you’re struggling with your sling
  • you notice pain in an area other than your elbow.

Wearing your sling

Wear your sling in the day for comfort. You can take it off to wash, dress and to do your exercises.

Wearing your brace

If you’ve been given a brace:

Early movement

Elbows get stiff very quickly so it’s important to start the exercises below as soon as possible.

Avoid lifting anything more than the weight of a cup of tea for the first 6 weeks.

You can do light activities when your pain has settled.

Exercises

Try to do these exercises 4-5 times a day. Repeat each exercise 10 times.

Don’t forget to take your pain relief 30 minutes before you do your exercises.


6. Elbow fracture dislocation

What is your injury?

It’s a dislocation with a break to a bone in your elbow. This means that your elbow came out of its joint and was not in the right place. You will have had help in the ED to put your elbow back in joint. The soft tissues and ligaments stabilising your elbow will have been stretched at the time of your injury. The break to your bone also makes this injury more complex.

Healing

It normally takes up to 12 weeks to heal, but this may differ depending on your individual circumstances.

Follow up

You will see a specialist in the Fracture Clinic 1 to 2 weeks after your injury. They will examine the stability of your elbow and will explain the next stage of your rehabilitation.

You can also book an open appointment at any time in the six months after your injury. Please call 01736 758892 to make an appointment.

Please call the Fracture Clinic on 01872 253091 if:

  • You haven’t heard from us about your follow-up by 4 days after your injury
  • you’re unable to follow this rehabilitation plan
  • you have any questions
  • you’re struggling with your sling
  • you notice pain in an area other than your elbow.

Wearing your sling

Wear your sling in the day for comfort. You can take it off to wash, dress and to do your exercises.

Wearing your brace

If you’ve been given a brace:

Early movement and exercise

Elbows get stiff very quickly so it’s important to start the exercises below as soon as possible.

Avoid lifting anything more than the weight of a cup of tea for the first 6 weeks.

You can do light activities when your pain has settled.

Exercises

Try to do these exercises 4-5 times a day. Repeat each exercise 10 times.

Don’t forget to take your pain relief 30 minutes before you do your exercises.

Further exercises

ONLY do these exercises when told to do so by a member of the orthopaedic team:


Your sling and plaster cast

Using your sling

Wear your sling as instructed in the care plan for your injury below.

You can see more about how to fit your sling, and washing, dressing, sleeping and sitting with your sling in these videos.

If you’re struggling with your sling, please call the Fracture Clinic on 01872 253091 and we’ll be happy to give you advice.

If you’ve been given a plaster cast

For some elbow injuries the Emergency Department (ED) or Minor Injuries Unit (MIU) may fit you with a plaster cast. Keep this clean and dry. Find out more about caring for your plaster cast.

Preventing complications

Caring for your wound and stitches

If you’ve had an operation, you’ll need to keep your stitches dry and clean. You should also look out for any redness or signs of swelling, bleeding or pus as these can be signs of an infection.

You can find information about how to care for your stitches, if/when they need to be removed and signs of an infection on our surgery for fractures and soft tissue injuries page.

Blood clots and Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

Because your limb is immobilised and you’ll be moving less than normal, you’re at higher risk of developing a blood clot or Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). This can be life threatening if left untreated.

Symptoms of DVT in the leg are:

  • throbbing or cramping pain in 1 leg (rarely both legs), usually in the calf or thigh
  • swelling in 1 leg (rarely both legs)
  • warm skin around the painful area
  • red or darkened skin around the painful area
  • swollen veins that are hard or sore when you touch them.

These symptoms can also happen in your arm or tummy if that’s where the blood clot is.

More information about DVT

Preventative medication for DVT

If you have been told not to put any weight through your leg or to partially weight bear (50%), you should have been assessed in ED or MIU and told if you need to take preventative medication.

If you have not had this conversation please call your GP for an urgent appointment.

Depending on your injury, you may have been prescribed a course of a blood thinner. There are a few different types of medication and they often need injecting into your tummy. You can discuss an alternative with a doctor. Please see the relevant care plan for your injury.

Pressure sores and ulcers

Wearing a boot or plaster cast combined with not moving your limb can lead to pressure sores or ulcers. These are injuries to the skin and underlying tissue caused by prolonged pressure, rubbing or tension.

They often develop gradually, but can sometimes form in a few hours.

Signs and symptoms of pressure sores

These include:

  • skin discolouration – red patches for people with pale skin, purple or blue patches for people with dark skin
  • discoloured patches that do not turn white when pressed
  • a patch of skin that feels warm, spongy or hard
  • pain or itchiness in the affected area.

If you have a boot, take it off every day to check your skin and make sure it’s not rubbing.

If you have a plaster cast, look out for a change in colour (red or white) of your skin above or below the plaster, an increase in pain inside the plaster or pins and needles.

If you think you have a pressure sore or ulcer call the Fracture Clinic straight away on 01872 253091.

For out of hours advice please call 01736 758909.

Sepsis

Sepsis (also known as blood poisoning) is a serious infection that can be life threatening. There is no one sign for sepsis so it can be hard to spot.

Call 111 immediately if you develop any of the following:

  • Slurred speech or confusion
  • Extreme shivering or muscle pain
  • Passing no urine in a day
  • Severe breathlessness
  • It feels like you’re going to die
  • Skin is mottled or discoloured.

Find out more about the symptoms of sepsis on the NHS website.

These videos also explain what sepsis is and how to spot the early signs.

Living with your injury

Driving

Wait at least six weeks after your injury. After that, you can return to driving when:

  • you have been told you no longer need your sling
  • we’ve removed your cast (if you had one)
  • you’re able to turn the steering wheel comfortably and without any pain
  • you can control the vehicle safely
  • you’ve checked it’s okay to drive with your insurance company.

Always test your ability to drive with the ignition off and in a safe environment.

If you have a follow-up appointment with us, please wait until your consultant or physiotherapist has given you clearance to drive. If you are in any doubt, do not drive until you have spoken to our team.

Work

Decisions to return to work are made on a unique basis and should be discussed with the Fracture Clinic, your GP and your employer.

You may need time off work and when you return, you may need light or amended duties. When you should return to work will depend on your profession and your injury.

You can get a fitness to work statement or a sick note when you come into the Fracture Clinic. If you don’t need to come and see us, you can get one from your GP.

Sport

You should not do any sports for 6 to 12 weeks.

You must avoid contact sports and heavy lifting for 12 weeks.

Thank you to Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals for kindly letting us use information from their care plans to create this site.

Page last reviewed: 9 May 2023

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