The medial and ulnar collateral ligaments maintain the stability of the elbow. A tear in either of these ligaments can occur when stress is applied to the elbow. This can occur in athletes who play sports that involve throwing, but elbow ligament injuries can happen in nonathletes too. Falling on an outstretched arm or forced twisting of the arm can also tear elbow ligaments. Depending on the extent of the tear, torn elbow ligaments can be treated with or without surgery.
Rest and Evaluation
After any form of elbow injury, it's important to rest the joint to avoid additional stress on the elbow to prevent further damage. This also limits additional swelling, which makes evaluation of the injury difficult. Your doctor will carefully press on your injured elbow while moving it to determine the mobility and stability of the joint and to feel for any other injuries. Your doctor may also want to order tests, such as an MRI, to determine the location and severity of the tear.
For many people, elbow ligament tears can be treated without surgery. Treatment begins with 2 to 3 months of resting the arm and avoiding any activity that will stress the elbow. During this time, icing the elbow for 10 minutes several times each day will help reduce pain and swelling. Your doctor may recommend an antiinflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn). Daily range of motion exercises that involve bending and straightening the elbow will help prevent the joint from becoming stiff. If after 2 to 3 months of rest and physical therapy the pain in the elbow is gone, exercises to strengthen the arm will help rebuild the strength of the joint and allow you to return to normal activities.
Surgical treatment of an elbow ligament tear involves replacing the torn ligament with tissue from elsewhere in the body. In many cases, the tendon from the palmaris longus muscle, which is also located in the forearm, is used to recreate the torn ligament. After the operation, the elbow needs to be splinted to allow time for healing. After this point, you will begin a gradual physical rehabilitation program that will begin with simple strengthening exercises to gradually help your elbow return to normal.
The choice of treatment depends in part on patient preferences. Many people opt to try to let the elbow heal without surgery. However, if the pain persists after nonsurgical treatment, surgery may be needed. Surgery may also be needed for athletes who play sports that involve throwing, such as football quarterbacks and baseball pitchers.