If you've got a stiff elbow, you're probably well aware of how much elbow movement you actually need to do your daily tasks — especially if it affects your dominant arm. Luckily, elbow exercises can improve your symptoms.
Elbow stiffness can not only affect bending and straightening, but forearm rotation as well. Stiffness commonly develops after trauma to the joint, but can also occur as a side effect of medical conditions such as arthritis.
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Moving an injured joint too early can cause further damage. Check with your doctor before attempting elbow exercises — particularly if your symptoms occur after trauma. For best results, see a physical therapist for a comprehensive treatment plan to improve your range of motion.
Read more: Treatments for Elbow Pain From Weightlifting
Causes of a Stiff Elbow
Elbow joint stiffness can be caused by several things. Muscles can become tight, particularly if your arm was in a sling while an injury was healing. Scar tissue can form during the healing process to strengthen damaged structures.
However, in some cases, too much scar tissue forms. This can cause connective tissue around your elbow joint to tighten.
Less commonly, bone can grow in muscles around your elbow or other joint structures where it isn't supposed to be — a condition called heterotopic bone formation (HO), as discussed in an article published by EFORT Open Reviews in May 2018.
Elbow exercises for joint stiffness caused by HO will not improve range of motion. In fact, exercise can actually increase the amount of abnormal bone growth. Treatment for this condition typically includes anti-inflammatory medications and sometime radiation, as explained in an article published by Journal of Orthopaedic Trauma in December 2012.
Stiff Elbow Exercises
Range-of-motion (ROM) exercises can improve mobility in your stiff elbow. It's common to feel some discomfort or a strong pulling sensation during these exercises. However, sharp pain during a stretch is not normal. Stop exercising and consult your doctor or physical therapist if you have these symptoms.
Small improvements in range of motion should occur while you are doing these exercises. If you don't see progress, consult your doctor. In some cases, surgery is required to address elbow stiffness, as discussed in the EFORT Open Reviews article.
Begin with active assisted elbow exercises to stretch your joint, followed by active range-of-motion exercises to move your elbow independently.
1. Active Assisted Elbow Exercises
Active assisted ROM elbow exercises use your opposite hand to gently increase movement in your affected joint. Perform eight to 10 repetitions of each exercise at least four times per day, as recommended by the Nova Scotia Health Authority. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.
Move 1: Active Assisted Flexion
- Sit up straight with your elbow by your side.
- With your palm up, bend your elbow as far as possible.
- Place your opposite hand on the back of your forearm.
- Gently push with your hand to bend your elbow further.
Move 2: Active Assisted Extension
- Sit with your arm resting on a table. Place a small towel under your elbow for comfort.
- Straighten your elbow as far as possible.
- Using your opposite hand, gently push your arm forward down toward the table to increase the stretch.
Move 3: Active Assisted Supination
- Bend your elbow to 90 degrees.
- Keeping your arm tight by your side, rotate your forearm into a palm-up position.
- Grasp your forearm, just below your wrist, with your opposite hand.
- Apply pressure into the palm-up position.
Move 4: Active Assisted Pronation
- Bend your elbow to 90 degrees.
- With your arm against your side, rotate your forearm into a palm-down position.
- With your opposite hand, hold your forearm just below your wrist.
- Gently rotate your forearm further into the palm-down position.
2. Active Elbow Range of Motion
Active range-of-motion exercises rely on your muscles to move your joint. These exercises also begin to strengthen your muscles as you move your elbow against gravity.
Hold each position for five seconds, as recommended by Nova Scotia Health Authority. Then slowly return to the starting position. Perform 10 repetitions of each exercise, working up to three sets in a row.
Move 1: Elbow Flexion
- Sit with your arm by your side.
- With your thumb pointed toward the ceiling, bend your elbow as far as possible.
- Slowly return to the starting position.
- Repeat this exercise with your palm facing up and again with your palm facing down.
Move 2: Elbow Extension
- Stand with your arm by your side.
- Straighten your elbow as far as you can.
- Relax and repeat 10 times.
For added stretch, hold a small dumbbell, can of soup or water bottle in your hand during this exercise.
Move 3: Forearm Supination/Pronation
- Sit with your elbow bent to 90 degrees and thumb pointed toward the ceiling.
- Keep your elbow tight by your side throughout this exercise.
- Rotate your forearm into a palm-up position.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat 10 times.
- Perform this same exercise sequence while rotating in a palm-down position.
Increase the amount of stretch by holding a hammer in your hand — heavy side up — while performing this exercise.
3. Advanced Elbow Exercises
Elbow stiffness that has been present for a long time might require more aggressive stretching techniques. Perform these exercises only if advised by your doctor or therapist.
Move 1: Table Flexion
- Stand facing a table or countertop.
- Rest your forearms on the surface, keeping your arms close to your body.
- Lean your upper body over your elbows to stretch them into a bent position.
- Hold for 10 seconds, then relax.
- Repeat three times.
Move 2: Wall Flexion
- Stand facing a wall.
- Place your forearms flat against the wall.
- Slowly slide your elbows down the wall to increase the bend in your elbow.
- Stop and hold for 10 seconds when you feel a strong pulling sensation.
- Repeat three times.
- Increase this stretch by stepping closer to the wall.
Move 3: Supine Elbow Extension
- Lie on your back with your arm by your side.
- Place a small folded towel under your upper arm.
- Hold a dumbbell or other small object weighing 5 pounds or less in your palm.
- Relax your elbow, allowing the weight to stretch your arm straight.
- Hold for 30 seconds; slowly increase your time as tolerated.
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