Basketball and Elbow Pain

Playing basketball
Two men playing basketball (Image: Design Pics/Design Pics/Getty Images)

Whether you're an NBA All Star like Lebron James or just an amateur playing hoops at the park, elbow pain can hurt both your physical and mental basketball game. In 2010, LeBron James told the Associated Press that he cannot avoid thinking about his elbow pain during a game. Ankle and knee injuries are more common in basketball, but elbow pain can keep you off the court for weeks.

Causes

According to the National Institutes of Healh, a common cause of elbow pain is overuse or tendinitis of the elbow, such as when you’re shooting, passing or dribbling the ball. Overuse can lead to a strain, also known as pulled muscle, in which the muscle overstretches and tears. Tendinitis--an inflammation, irritation and swelling of a tendon--also can cause elbow pain in basketball players. Falls can cause elbow dislocations, in which the joint surfaces partially or fully separate. If you have a dislocated elbow, your arm will look deformed and you will be in extreme pain.

Prevention

Cold muscles are more prone to injury, so it’s important to warm up before shooting hoops, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Warm up with jumping jacks or by running in place for five minutes. Then stretch your muscles, holding each stretch for 30 seconds. Wear the proper gear, including supportive athletic shoes, ankle supports, a mouth guard, knee and elbow supports and pads.

Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose your elbow pain through a physical examination and tests. A standard examination includes inspection, palpation, range of motion testing, neurological assessment and examination of the related muscles and areas such as the neck, shoulder and wrist, according to doctors Eric M. Chumbley, Francis G. O'Connor and Robert P. Nirschl in their 2000 article, “Evaluation of Overuse Elbow Injuries,” published in American Family Physician. If you need further tests for diagnosis, your doctor might order radiographs of the elbow to evaluate the radial head and joint stability. A magnetic resonance imaging, commonly called an MRI, can identify problems with the soft tissue, cartilage and ligaments, as well as and any defects.

Treatment

You can treat elbow pain with the PRICEMM method: protection, rest, ice, compression, elevation, medication and modalities, meaning physical therapy. Protect your elbow in a bandage or splint. Rest for at least two days after you experience elbow pain. Ice your elbow for up to 15 minutes every three to four hours. Elevate your elbow above your heart. Take pain relievers, and begin to gradually work the muscles around the elbow through gentle flexibility exercises. You might need physical therapy if your elbow pain does not improve through home care.

Warning

If you have an obvious deformity such as a dislocated elbow or you know your pain is from a direct injury and not just overuse, seek immediate medical attention. Call your doctor if your elbow pain does not go away after prolonged treatment of the PRICEMM method. If you are unable to use your elbow or if fever, redness or swelling accompanies the elbow pain, contact your doctor. Continuing to play basketball with a sore elbow can worsen your injury.

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