July 28, 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. Hi Dan.. I can,t streighten or close arm completelyfor over a year..,shoulder pain too .there is a buildup on the outside of elbow joint.guess I should see a doctor

  2. naveen chaudhry says:

    Hello doc
    i m naveen 39 m from new delhi.
    I cant fully stretch my left arm.thats not the problem because i have become used to of this. real problem is the pain after i get up in the morning.i assume that when i sleep on my left side the blood flow to some vein or muscle stops and there is little swelling also on my arm a litle above elbow and THAT is where it pains.as the time pass in an hour or so and i use my hand to exercise and do some work little movements like brushing teeth it reduces a little though doesnot go fully and pains whole day. if i exercise regularly it reduces and swelling is also less.this problem is more n winters.pains is so severe that even somebody just touches with fingers its unbearable.
    History:when i was about 3 yrs. i fell on my elbow as i am told(i dont remember a bit)then it was messaged tn something like a peanut sstarted to show my forearm and the pain persisted and this problem grew somewhere around 15-16 yrs of my age after an ultrasound there was an operation on my forearm for tumur like thing which had grown from a peanut to a walnut then it. was okay though my hand could straighten for some days but after about 2 yrs of operation i had a fracture in my hand above the elbow. and after the removing of plaster it is in the present position.
    i am really looking forward for some suggestions.

    • Naveen it sounds like this is complicated. There may be some scar tissue blocking the joint from the surgery that you had? The only way to be sure is to see a physical therapist or an orthopedist. I wish that I could be of more help but I cannot see how your elbow moves and how the end-range feels.

  3. Hi Dan, was just wondering I have noticed recently that I am no longer able to straighten my arm and it is very tender around the elbow on the outer side, I have had a bone graft undone in my left hip in 2008 which has left me with a severe trendellenburg gait, which means that I permanently walk with an elbow crutch in my right hand, also due to another accident I have recently had to have my right knee replaced, so the continue use of the elbow crutch has made an impact to the elbow while walking as I place the crutch down it is painful, I’d appreciate your opinion before I see my doctor next

    • Helen it sounds like the elbow crutch is the likely culprit. If the elbow joint gets inflamed from excessive usage of the arm muscles (ie from crutching) the result can be a loss of extension of the joint.

      Have a PT check out the crutch to see if there is anything that can be modified or adjusted. Sometimes if the crutch is too long that can create too much stress on the elbow. You might also be able to tolerate a different type of crutch (a loftstrand maybe??) that would change how you place stress on the joint.

  4. Hi my name is Jamie and I had fractured my elbow as a child and I am 34 yrs old now n I still can not straighten my right arm out like I can my left arm and as I’m going to the gym n using weights I notice that it really does affect me and the pain does hurt n it limits my ability to do much lifting with that arm n I am wondering wat the cause of it could be n I do notice wen I am trying to lift the weights that I have this I think bone that just pops out right under the blood vein I am just curious wat the cause is n y I have not been able to stretch my arm out anymore after the fracture like I can do with my left so if you could help that’ll be great .

    • Jamie I would definitely see a doctor about this. The problem here is that your fracture occurred a very long time ago, so it will be a bit tricky to get that range of motion back.

      There are braces available that can place a gentle stretch on the elbow, but you would likely need a prescription from a doctor to get one.

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