Written by Anthony Walsh, PT, DPT
Many pain conditions (except for elbow fracture or dislocation) can be managed through simple, conservative, self-care strategies. But in almost all cases, physical therapy is the most important aspect of treatment to help return patients to their pre-injury level of activity. In addition to strengthening the forearm muscles, physical therapy for your elbow can help prevent any future injury or inflammation.
The nonsurgical treatment of elbow pain depends on the underlying diagnosis. It is essential that the cause of the condition is determined by a healthcare professional or licensed physical therapist before starting any specific treatment plan.
Self-Care Strategies for Elbow Sprains
The RICE method is a self-care strategy that can be used to treat elbow sprains:
- Rest: Restrict and modify daily activity to allow the ligaments to heal.
- Ice: Ice the area periodically (every 15-20 minutes) to reduce swelling and prevent tissue damage, during the first 2-3 days.
- Compression: Wrap the injured area with a bandage. This helps support the elbow and decrease swelling.
- Elevate: Prop the injured area so it’s elevated, especially at night. This helps to decrease pain and swelling.
After the first few days, there is often a debate between heat or ice at home? Often, it is very subjective. What do you find provides you the most pain relief? What helps you stay committed to your home exercise program? If feeling tight and stiff, heat prior to stretching and performing exercises may be best. If aching after a workout, ice will serve as a good analgesic. In most cases, either or is fine! Heat will increase blood flow and relax muscles whereas ice will help calm nerves and slow down pain signals. That said, there are very few situations where one might not be warranted due to a medical condition or past medical history. Be sure to confirm with your physical therapist first.
What to Expect During Physical Therapy
You may experience some extra soreness following your first few physical therapy sessions at the sight of your injury. A common technique a physical therapist will use is soft tissue mobilization, or “STM”. STM is a form of manual physical therapy where your licensed PT uses hand-on techniques on your muscles, ligaments to optimize your muscle function. STM helps disrupt any tight, ‘junky’ tissue that may be provoking symptoms and accelerate the healing process of new, healthy tissue. That said, the long-term benefits of STM will outweigh the potential mild aches during the process itself so do not be alarmed!
Body parts are very interdependent. If a problem is occurring at one joint often the cause or solution may be at a nearby body part. Thus, if you are receiving treatment for an elbow or arm injury chances are your therapist is doing some shoulder and wrist exercises. Mild exercise induced soreness in those spots are okay as well. It is important to get the surrounding tissue stronger to reduce the stress put on the injured area itself!
It’s also important to be mindful of what you are doing at home. Elbow pain relative to an injury can be provoked by heavy lifting or “pulling” at the joint (i.e., trying to carry the grocery bags in “one trip”). Try these tips:
- Avoid lifting with a fully extended arm.
- Keep objects close to your body. This will reduce movement at the elbow and make it easier for bigger, stronger muscles at the shoulder and upper back to do the work.
Be a Patient Patient!
Most importantly – do not give up! Unless recovering from surgery (i.e., elbow fracture, “Tommy John”, etc.), chances are it took a while for your elbow or arm pain to develop. Therefore, it is going to take a fair amount of time for the pain to go away as well. Be patient! Most patients receive PT two or three times a week, however, two to three hours in an entire week is just one part of the rehab process. The more engaged you are in your treatment approach and time you can commit to at home while guided by your therapist, will provide the most benefit.
If you feel yourself needing an extra push to stay committed to your recovery, talk to a Professional Physical therapist about easy ways to stay on track and keep yourself motivated. We’re here to help!
If you’re experiencing any pain or discomfort visit us a Professional Physical Therapy for a consultation or evaluation. Our trained specialists are here to help you reach your goals and get your life healthier and more comfortable today