September 21, 2014

Why Won’t My Elbow Straighten?

elbow stretching for gradual straightening
On one occasion while playing basketball, I was knocked off of my feet, and I landed onto my left elbow. Thankfully, my elbow was not fractured, although it did bruise up substantially.

In addition to some swelling, I soon noticed an inability to straighten out my elbow. For many months my elbow remained unable to completely straighten. I ended up consulting an orthopedist and a physical therapist, and their advice was invaluable…

Elbows respond to slow and gentle stretching.

Elbow fractures, elbow surgeries, and general elbow trauma all can have the unfortunate consequence of “contractures,” or lags in range of motion. I have found that the soft tissue of the elbow does not respond favorably to aggressive stretching. Aggressive pushing of the ranges of motion will actually cause the elbow to become more inflamed, and in many cases, the contracture will worsen.

The soft tissue of the elbow tends to agree with a slower, gentler stretch imposed over a longer period of time. If you cannot fully straighten your elbow, try this simple exercise. (See photo above)

1. Lie on the floor “face upwards” and place a pillow under your forearm so that your arm may rest with a slight amount of stretch. Make sure that your shoulder does not lift off the floor as you lie in this position. Adjust the amount of support under the forearm if necessary.

2. Allow your elbow to rest into extension over ten to fifteen minutes. Gently press your forearm down into the pillow for ten seconds every minute by contracting your triceps muscles.

3. As your range of motion improves, use less of a support under your forearm.

4. The level of stretch imposed on your shoulder during this exercise should be a “one or two” out of a scale of ten. If you are encountering too much stretch, adjust the pillow under your forearm to allow a more comfortable amount of flexion.

About Dan Baumstark, MSPT, CHT

Dan is a physical therapist who specializes in sports medicine & upper extremity rehabilitation. He is certified by the American Society of Hand Therapists, and he has extensive continuing education in manual therapy from the Michigan State University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Google+


  1. Ajay singh says:

    my hand doesnt staight bcause i have an elbow fracture in Child now any solution to look back my hand like original position …plzz help

  2. I hyper-extended and badly sprained my elbow at gymnastics practice in the beginning of June. I was in a cast for 2 weeks and have done physical therapy ever since. I still can’t fully straighten my elbow without using a weight to dangle it. How long do you think it will take for my elbow to get back to normal?

    • Marie if the elbow will straighten with the weights, you will probably get your range back. It may just take a few months to get there. It largely depends on how much inflammation there is in the joint and how severe the injury was.

  3. For Some reason my arms will not go straight at the elbow. Ive never broken any bones before and I dont really work out. Im very embarrassed about this because it looks funny! What can I do to fix this?

  4. Pete sinoyiannis says:


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