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What Should I Expect from Elbow Physical Therapy?

By Brenda Scott
Updated May 17, 2024
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The elbow is a hinge joint made up of three bones — the humerus, radius and ulna — with two tendons and several muscles providing support. Injuries to the elbow can occur in any sport, especially those which involve swinging a racket, club, or bat; or throwing a ball, and in jobs involving repetitive motions such as swinging a hammer or working at a computer. Damage to an elbow can be due to tendon or muscle strain, bursitis, arthritis, or dislocation. The type of elbow physical therapy recommended depends upon the underlying cause of the discomfort., but most therapy employs a combination of stretching and strengthening.

The first step in elbow physical therapy is to determine the source of the pain and to alleviate it. Depending upon the type of injury, this may involve immobilization of the joint, rest, anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections and pain killers. Once the pain has been mitigated, an elbow physical therapy program can begin. The length of time it takes to recover varies, the longer the condition has existed, the longer it will generally take to regain full strength and mobility.

Elbow physical therapy may involve the use of electrostimulation and ultrasound to increase blood flow to the affected area and to reduce pain and muscle spasms. Chiropractors and physical therapists may also use manual manipulation to help position the bones in the elbow properly. Light massage, which should not cause pain, may be applied to the area before exercising in order to increase the flexibility of the muscles.

An exercise program is then drafted to specifically address the damaged tendons or muscles. These exercises are performed for short periods of time, several times a day. Weights are added slowing, beginning with one pound (.454 kg) and gradually increasing in weight.

Physical therapy may begin with a specialist at a therapy center, but the exercise program is intended to be conducted at home daily. Some of the exercises are simply stretches and bends, with the opposite hand used as a guide and support. Other maneuvers use a rubber ball or rubber stick to provide resistance and strengthen the muscles. There is a tendency to stop the exercises once the pain disappears, but the problem could reoccur if therapy stops before the muscles and tendons are healed.

In cases where the injury is a result of athletic activity or work, therapy usually includes a program to prevent a recurrence once the patient returns to his or her normal routine. This may include learning alternate ways to position the arm and elbow during these activities. In some instances, the patient may be advised to wear a brace or other support while engaging in the repetitive activity. Ongoing stretching exercises are often added as a permanent part of the patient’s daily routine to maintain strength and flexibility.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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