Loosen Up! Treating Elbow Stiffness after Injury

The elbow may seem like a simple joint, but it can present complex problems. Injury to the elbow can have lasting effects, such as elbow stiffness. The cause of stiffness may come from inside or outside the elbow joint, or a combination of both.

Outside the joint, skin or other tissue can tighten, limiting elbow motion. Scar tissue may interfere with movement. Ligaments around the joint may have torn during the injury. The dense, fibrous tissue around the joint (called the capsule) can also cause problems.

Inside the joint, scar tissue may become pinched, leading to elbow stiffness. Pieces of bone can break off at the time of injury. These fragments can get stuck in the joint and block movement.

Once the elbow stiffens, it can be very difficult to treat. Elbow stiffness can often be prevented with medications, physical therapy, and elbow splinting to restore motion. If these methods don't work, surgery may be required. The surgeon can release the scar tissue around the joint and remove any loose pieces of bone inside the joint. In severe cases, doctors use other types of surgery to correct the problem. This can include putting a spacer between the joint (a procedure called interpositional arthroplasty), or it could mean replacing the elbow with an artificial joint.

References: Roderick J. Bruno, MD, et al. Posttraumatic Elbow Stiffness: Evaluation and Management. In Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. March/April 2002. Vol. 10. No. 2. Pp. 106-116.