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.

Discussion

  1. Kerri says

    Last month I took a nasty fall and injured my left elbow. X-Rays showed I didn’t break anything, but suffered a severe sprain. For the first couple weeks I kept the elbow elevated when sitting/laying down and in a sling as much as possible during the day, using it only when necessary.
    I still can’t extend the arm completely, which I don’t find surprising, what is disconcerting is that the elbow seems to “lock up” and then “crack” when I move my arm a certain way. The sensation is not pleasant, to say the least. This is also something I’ve never had my elbow do before. My wrists and ankles, yes, but never my elbow.
    I do have a follow up visit with my pcp, but unfortunately not until next week. In your opinion, should I be concerned about this “locking and cracking”? I have no qualms about pushing for an earlier visit with my doctor if this is something that should get immediate attention.
    Thank you.

      • Jenny says

        I was doing a backflip at tumbling and I dislocated my able I also fractured it. My arm has not been able to straighten my arm for a while and it’s not that comfortable. I can’t tumble nor cheer ( I hold the girls up) I have not been able to straighten my arm since January. If I do my therapy everyday how long do you think it will take to get my arm back to normal. Since I have been doing therapy for quite a while now I’ve been doing push ups and cartwheels and stretching it with a band that my therapist have me and I’ve been using weights.

        • says

          Jenny it may take a while, it depends on how severe the fracture was and exactly where the fracture occurred in the elbow area.

          If you are not getting range back, I would ask the doctor about getting a “static progressive” brace for the elbow. This type of brace places a slow stretch on the joint to assist in straightening it out.

  2. Dan says

    I had arthritis since I was 13 and I’m 22 now , but over the last year or so my arms Won’t fully straighten, and it’s very painful , while in the gym cycling ext,.. And I feel the urge to holding heavy weights to try straighten them but I think that makes its worse . What could u recommend please . Daniel

  3. Michael says

    A couple of weeks ago,I was playing basketball outside with my friend,he “crossed” me,and as I was running after him,I accidentally tripped on his foot and landed on my left elbow,I went to hospital immediately,I had an X-Ray,I have a cast. I’ve had the cast on for several weeks,last Monday I had an appointment.They took off my cast,unfortunately,I wasn’t able to straighten my arm fully,so they put a cast back on for a week or so.I’m quite scared since I am not sure if it’s serious,my elbow didn’t hurt when doc was touching it,but I couldn’t straighten my arm.

    • says

      Keeping the elbow in a bent position such as when in a cast is a necessary evil. The elbow needs to heal, but the result is often a stiff elbow that won’t straighten. You have to let the bone heal first, worry about the movement in the elbow once you are cleared to do so. You may want to see a PT after you are out of the cast.

  4. Kevin says

    Hi, i had accident 4years ago. I slipped on the floor and i used my right arm as a support. The result was that my elbow got dislocated. There was no blood and fractures. It was just swelling really bad. The next day the doctor operated on my elbow. I forgot what was the term of operation, but it did not invloved any open surgeries. They just put me into sleep then they proceed with putting my elbow back to where it was. One week later, they removed my half cast. Then i proceed to pt(physical therapy). It was a 10 session pt. But i stopped on the 9th coz of school. Now 4yrs later. I have a full function of my arm. The only downside is that i can’t fully straighten my right arm. It seems that something is blocking my full rotation of my elbow from the inside. Should i go to a pt or is there a way for me to do some pt on my own? I just wantedthe full mobility of my right arm again.

    • says

      Kevin there is probably some scare tissue in the joint. I would see the doc and possibly get a prescription for some PT. The doc might also consider prescribing you a “static progressive” brace that will help stretch your elbow slowly and gently into the range that is stuck. Ask the doc about that type of brace.

  5. mienard sandigan says

    I CANT STRAIGHTEN MY RIGHT ARM . IT STARTED WAY BACK 2010. PRIOR TO THAT, MY RIGHT MIDDLE FINGER GOT INJURED IN WHITEWATER RAFTING LAST 2009. I DON’T REMEMBER ANY INJURY ON MY ARM ESPECIALLY THE ELBOW WHICH IS VERY PAINFUL AS IN ELECTRICAL PAIN . IT WAS JUST THE MIDDLE FINGER THAT GOT INJURED. ARE THEY CONNECTED? PLEASE ENLIGHTEN ME. THANKS

    • says

      Mienard from what you describe I do not think that the middle finger injury from rafting is directly related to the elbow, but I do think that it would be worth your time to see an orthopedist. Electric pain may signify that one of the nerves might be inflamed.

  6. stephon says

    I’ve been having this problem for five years now I used to lift heavy weights with friends and now my elbow don’t go straight and I ha e pain here and there on both elbows. Do I need surgery ? What can I do ?

  7. Javier says

    I was crossing the road and tripped on a wire and landed on my left elbow. I went to the doctor and x-ray show that it wasnt broken and got a cast. The doc took it of but i can’t straighten my arm. What could be wrong?

    • says

      If the elbow was not broken, why did the doc put a cast on it? When the elbow is held in a bent position for a long time, the tissue in the elbow joint tends to accommodate to that position. The elbow will probably need to be stretched out. I would see if you can see a PT, ask your doc.

  8. Rondale Walker says

    I had surgery back in 2013 which was a left ulnar shaving on my forearm. While I was in the cast I slipped and hit my elbow (my arm was in L format). There was never any pain or anything just a small pop each time I extended. At first I was able to fully extend but each day the pop got louder and louder. Now there is constant grinding, and popping sometimes. Mainly the pain is only when I try to extend it or bang it on something. There is some swelling and everything but I can not find a doctor to help me with my Issue. I can barely lift anything and trying to work out is a gringing party. Ive seen 3 doctors and each said nerve damage is the reason I cant fully extend my arm but I am having no tingling nor sign of nerve damage.

    • says

      Ugh. That sounds complicated Rondale. I think you need to find the right doctor to figure out exactly what is going on. You probably want to see an orthopedist who specializes in elbows. Ask around. You could try calling a physical therapy clinic and asking who they know.

  9. Sue Martin says

    I broke the radial head bone in my elbow 4 months ago. I have been having physio and I can now touch my shoulder but the physio has now told me that he can no longer help as he says there is a ‘bony block’ which means he can only get it to straighten to 35 degrees. He even asked if there is an occasion when I do need to fully straighten my arm! Can you suggest any exercises to extend the amount I can straighten it please as I do not want to have a visibly bent arm for the rest of my life.

    • says

      Sue the next thing that I would try with you would be to get a static progressive brace to stretch the elbow into a more straightened position. The company that we use is called “JAS”, and you would need a prescription from your doc to get one.

      If you get no progress with a stretch brace over a few months I would then agree with the PT. The next step after that would be to ask the orthopedist if there is any other thing that he can do.

  10. Garrett says

    Hi I recently jacked up my elbow from a bad fall and was originally in a splint for 3 weeks with a plate over my elbow and a couple screws. The plate somehow slipped off my elbow the first time around due to my tricep muscle and then they re did the surgery using a cast this time. It has been 3 more weeks since the last surgery and my cast was removed today. My elbow barely bends and is in pain and the doctor said there isn’t much he can do, I can’t straighten it and can’t bend it very much. Any advice to help with this I am wearing a brace that allows me to bend my arm a bit for 1 more month. Is it too early to start physical therapy?

    • says

      Start with gentle active range of motion of the elbow if the doctor okays that. I would also bother the doctor about when you can start some physical therapy. The fracture needs to be mostly healed before you can range it more aggressively.

  11. Valerie says

    I disclocated my elbow on 1-14-15. My elbow was put back in place at the hospital. On the 19th I saw to the PT. I was put into an brace. I saw my PT for fourteen visit. I travel for the summers my last visit was 4-17-15. I have been doing the exercises. But my elbow will not straighten out. I was told when I come back from traveling that I will need to have the capsule in the elbow broke open and then more PT. Will this work. I am this having mild pain.

    • says

      Elbow dislocations can be tricky like that Valerie. You might want to ask the doctor about getting a “static progressive” brace for the elbow. That should help with straightening it out, although it does take a significant amount of time and patience on your part.

      • Valerie says

        My brace has been adjusted as far as it can. I had been locking the brace out straight at 100% at night but I am having too
        much pain. I also have fibromyalgia that is causing problems now. My stress level is very high. Will not be back to see PT until Oct.

  12. Neil H says

    I fractured my radial head over two weeks ago from a snowboard incident coming off a high jump. I had an xray at hospital and the results showed a fracture ( minimally displaced). The doctor at hospital told me to try and move my arm slowly each day to create movement in the elbow which I have done daily. The problem I have now is that my arm wont fully straighten, I have tried to stretch it each day by keeping arm elevated on edge of sofa with a small weight in my hand to held gravity straighten it. Nothing seems to be working and arm is not straightening, if anything, my arm feels like its getting worse with pain. When i breath heavily I can feel a shooting pain in my elbow. Is it normal for my elbow to not straighten post 17 days after incident and have sharp pains running through elbow, any advice would be great thanks?

    • says

      Neil I think that holding the weight off the couch is a bit aggressive for this early on. I would try lying on the floor and placing a towel under your forearm so that it just barely feels like a stretch. No weight in the hand. A gentler stretch imparted over a longer period of time may work better.

      In terms of mechanics, the head of the radius bone needs to translate a little bit forward in order for the elbow to fully straighten. You might want to see a PT and have the joint stretched and moved a bit. You would need a script from your doctor.

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