April 23, 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, I experienced the inability to straighten the arm( exactly like the pic)
    It happen when I sufffered humeral fracture 2 months ago. Is that anyway that I can straighten my arm normally? Tq

    • Fairul the fracture should have healed by now, so it should be safe to work on gently stretching the elbow. You should ask your doctor if you could work with a physical therapist for a session or two to get some stretching ideas. The most simple way to work on stretching is to lie on your back with the palm facing up and rest in that position for a while. Use a pillow under your forearm if it is too much of a stretch.

      Depending on how bent the elbow is, sometimes it is also a good idea to get a brace that works on stretching the elbow, the name of the brace is “JAS”.

  2. Hi, i got accident in basketball last january 9 and surgery last january 17 to fix my comminuted broken elbow using a pin and tension wire. After 2 weeks of casting my doctor removed the cast and let me do range of motion exercise and ordered me to undergo rehab last february 18. I am so focused on getting back to normal,..even in house and office i continue to do exercise and stretching,.i have 110 flexion and 30 extension (active) while 118 flexion and 14 extension (active assisted). I know that im improving lately.

    Do my elbow back to normal as prior to accident.? Thanks,..do you have patients who experienced this kind of injury and how long they took to get back things in shape.

    • Emerson is does depend on how involved the fracture is. A fracture that requires the placement of pins and wire is a bit more serious that one that does not require any surgery. There is the possibility that you may not be able to entirely straighten out your elbow, but my guess is that if you are young the amount of range of motion that you will lose will be very, very small. Maybe a degree or two (not enough to really affect your basketball playing).

      I would guess that it is going to take a good six to eight months before you are starting to forget that you fractured it. Be patient and stick to whatever rehab the doctor or therapist advises.

      • Thanks, appreciate your reply Dan.

        Im running 27 this year and is my age fitted on what you have said to lose very very small amount of range of motion?

        Do the available range of motion now (2 months after fixation and continuous rehab) will improve over time until almost complete? Currently, Im walking with a bent elbow and looks very stiff.

        • Emerson it will likely take at least several more months to improve. I would continue to work the range of motion at home and with the rehab professional.

  3. I play cricket and i am a right handed fast bowler. My right elbow compared to left cant absolutely straighten. I never hand any injury , nothing i can remember of. When i try to bowl quick, faster than usual my elbow hurts and pain is there for few min but it goes away.

  4. John Oosterveld says:

    For about 4 years I can’t straighten my tight arm. I’m a concrete finisher and wondering if I can ever get it straight again doing some exercises.

    • John I would get an x-ray to see what is going on since it has been such a long time. You may be able to get some improvement depending on what is going on. It might also be worth your while to see a physical therapist to get a good idea of what exercises to do.

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