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. Hayley says

    Hi, I’m thirteen and I never injured my arm but ever since I was little my arm would maybe go the furthest of maybe 176 degrees, not really that bad only 4 degrees from a straight arm (I’m talking about my elbow) but as o got older I became a competitive swimmer and streamline is important and I cant do streamline unless mu arms cross in an X when my hands should meet at a point above my head. The X isn’t that bad, I’m not sure if it’s because there’s not a big difference between the 176 or so degrees I am from 180 degrees but the cross happens at my wrists, not si bad. Please can you explains this to ne, I’ve considered breaking my hands and setting then back in place but I cant remember breaking my hand, twisting it or damaging it in any way, falling off a tree or something high or falling on my arms I usually fall on my stomach and use my hands and knees to break my fall instinct. Please your my last hope to explains what s wrong with my arms.

    -Hayley

    • says

      Hayley I am not entirely understanding the mechanics of what you are describing, but I do think that it would be a really bad idea to break your wrists and reset them. You very well could end up with some other problems that you haven’t even thought of.

      If the “X” pattern that you are describing is not perfect because of your elbow not entirely straightening, it would be worth your time to talk to a PT and get some advice on how to work on straightening it out. Sometimes elbows can get stuck in a slightly flexed position if it is slightly bumped or bruised.

  2. Michael rogers says

    I feel off my bike and landed awkward on my right arm and now I can straighten it its 2015 and I haven’t had full range since 2008 is that bad

  3. Feras says

    Hi, I have the same problem Hayley does. From Since I was born till now, my right arm won’t straighten out completely, I never injured my elbow in any way, my left arm is normal. It wasn’t a big deal but now I’m 17 and I started to workout at the gym. My left arm can easily carry 10 KG and my right(the one with the issue) can barely carry the 7.5KG dumbbell. Also, the weird thing is, the bicep muscle on my right arm is bigger than the one on my left, and when I work out, the veins on my right are more obvious to see than the veins on my left. So my right arm has a bigger bicep but is much weaker than the one on my left. My right arm bends at about 150-155 degrees. I hope you know my issue. Thanks,

  4. Monique says

    Hi, I’m from South Africa. I’m turning 20 this year. I had an accident when just before I turned 13. I cracked my left elbow in an accident. I got surgery where they inserted two nails into my elbow, but now I haven’t been able to completely straighten my arm ever since. I just won’t go straight, even if someone sits on it or really pulls hard on my arm. Why is this? And will I ever be able to straighten my arm? What do I have to do to fix it? Thanks!

    • says

      Monique it is possible that scar tissue from the trauma and the surgery are blocking the full extension motion. It is also possible that the nails might be blocking it. Either way, an updated x-ray would probably shed some light on the issue.

      If the nails are in the way, they would have to be removed. If it is scar tissue, you might be able to use a “static progressive brace” to stretch the scar tissue out. Ask the doc about it.

  5. katrina says

    I managed to hit the inside of my wrist very hard on something within the last month, the area that was hit was only a few inches below my palm. There was some immediate swelling and a few days of tenderness followed by light bruising on the back side of my wrist on the side of my pinky finger. Since then I have developed some tenderness in my elbow. It is only uncomfortable when I try to fully bend or extend. My elbow when extended feels like it needs to be adjusted back to the proper position. What do you think? How do I fix this issue and get full range of motion to return?

    • says

      I would have a doctor check it out Katrina. There are several tendons and muscles that cross the wrist joint and go up to the elbow. It might be one of those muscles, but I would make sure that there is no nerve involvement.

      • Tyre says

        Hi my name is Tyre. On June 27th , I broke my elbow in a basketball game because I took a hard blow directly to my elbow. I had a cast on my arm for 3 weeks & my elbow felt fine after I got it taken off. It’s almost 3 weeks after I taken it off & my elbow still doesn’t extend the full motion. I’ve tried everything to get it to stretch out more but no results. It extends about 65% of the way. What do you think my problem is here? & What should I do about it?

        • says

          If you have a PT available Tyre I would get it checked out to get some ideas as to how to stretch it. Elbows are tricky and fussy: if you push it to hard it can get more inflamed. You could start with the stretch that we outlined in the biog article where you just lie down on the floor and let gravity stretch the elbow. It is kind of boring but it would be a good thing to do in the mean time.

  6. Michelle Johnson says

    Good evening … I have a loaded question for you. I am a 45 year old female who does a lot of typing for a living. I am also very active … cheer coach, Zumba, running, etc. Since last November, I have been experiencing a myriad of issues with my left arm/shoulder/elbow. It started with numbness from my shoulder to my wrist, but just on the top of the arm. This mostly occurred while driving to work or sitting at my desk. This lasted a few months. Then, the numbness was replaced by pain. Now, it hurts to make a fist (I have pain in my upper forearm near my elbow) and I cannot straighten my arm completely. Finding a comfortable sleeping position is tough and when I roll over from my left side to my right side, I literally have to hold my left wrist with my right hand and pull my arm over. I cannot reach behind my left side with my left arm and pick up my purse (for example) due to shoulder and elbow pain and lack of strength. I do not have a full range of motion in my shoulder and when exercising, I have difficulty lifting my arm all the way up (arm straight, palm down or up). I went to an Orthopedic surgeon who did an x-ray and said my shoulder was fine and diagnosed me with thoracic outlet syndrome. Then I went to my regular doctor who said I have carpal tunnel syndrome (even though I don’t have wrist pain or numbness in fingers). He gave me shot in the rear (cortisone?) and prescribed steroids, which did seem to ease the symptoms while taking the medication. The elbow pain has gotten a lot worse since I hit my “funny bone” on the edge of the granite counter top while on vacation in June. What do you think is the problem? Could there be several things going on or a domino effect from one injury? Help! Thank you for your time.

    • says

      When a nerve gets irritated, it becomes more likely that the same nerve can become irritated in a different location. I believe that clinically it is referred to as a “double crush” injury. It sounds like that might be a possibility in your case. If I were you I would stay away from all activity with that arm for a good amount of time to let the nerve heal. I would try to avoid sleeping on that side, and it also might be a good idea to see a PT to see if any bracing of the wrist or elbow are in order.

  7. Donovan says

    I’ve never, to my knowledge, injured either of my elbows, but I’ve never been able to extend them completely straight. they extend about as straight as the picture used in this article It doesn’t cause me any pain and It’s never stopped me from being able to do anything. My question is, why are my elbows like this? I never see anyone else with a similar problem, and If it’s possible to change it I don’t know how.

    • says

      If the elbows have always been like that I would guess that it has to do with the shape of the surfaces of the bones as they meet one another at the joint. Some people have a slight anomaly in the shape that is hereditary. You probably have your parents to thank for this.

      You could get an X-ray and have an orthopedist look at it. If it is hereditary though I doubt that anything would be done.

  8. Maya says

    Hi so on September 2014,I dislocated my elbow and now my hand is not fully straight so is there anything i can do

  9. jez says

    I have been told I have tennis elbow and have been given several different types of pain relief and anti inflammatory medications with no result.
    I can only sleep at night for about an hour to hour and half then wake up in severe pain and struggling to straighten my arm.
    This also happens during the day if I stay in one position for some time its hard to either bend or straighten my arm. I feel sick with the pain.
    This has been going for for nearly two months now with being unable to work, I have physio booked but that still ten days away, the pain is starting to get my down and what else I can do to help sort my pain out.

    • says

      Jez the first thing that you can do is figure out what is setting your elbow off. If you work at a keyboard all day, I would have a co-worker take a few photos of you at your desk working (maybe on your phone??) and bring them to your PT evaluation. Make sure that the PT sees this.

      I would also get a wrist immobilization brace from the drug store. If this is indeed tennis elbow, keeping the wrist from moving will lessen the stress on the elbow.

  10. Mark says

    Hi there, I fell off a skateboard and landed squarely on my elbow about 5 months ago. I had x-rays and it was determined that I had a small fracture in my elbow. I was told that the injury would heal in 6-10 weeks and that there was little to do to recover other than rest. Like I said, it’s been 5 months now and I still have considerable pain and discomfort. I have pain in gripping, flexing my arm, I cannot fully straighten my arm.

    What next steps should be taken? I believe I should go see a medical professional, but who should I see? Is there a specific type of doctor? A therapist? Any guidance would be appreciated.

  11. Usain says

    Hey. I broke my elbow when I was 5 I’m now 23 and the arm is curved and swollen up by the side. I work out a lot but luckily I can move the arm freely but I don’t like the curve. Can it be fixed and straigthened?

    • says

      Usain that would at the very minimum require a visit to an orthopedist for an x-ray. It would probably also require surgery to re-break the bone and set it at a more normal angle.

      Most orthopedists would probably just tell you to live with it given that you have good range of motion and function. It can’t hurt to ask though.

  12. Jorge says

    I felt down of 12stairs and the next morning I couldn’t move my elbow or my arm,i made a simple movement of my elbow and it felt a great pressure on my elbow, arm and wrist. It’s been a month since the accident now i can move my elbow in/out and up/down nut cant completely bend or straighten my elbow and still feel pain when i move it..I can’t afford to go to a terapist so can I pls get some advice and excercise to get my elbow straighten and releaf the pain I would really appreciate it God bless.

    • says

      Jorge it would be a good idea to get an x-ray. If there is a fracture it usually takes about 6 weeks for the bone to heal. You probably could just start working on actively moving the elbow through flexion and extension without using the other hand to help. I do recommend seeing a doctor prior to doing this though.

  13. Brent W says

    I recently fell off my bike and tumbled forward banging my elbow. I was able to move it around at first but now after resting its range of motion is minimal. I am able to clench my fist with no pain and slight tingling in my elbow, but any effort to move the joint itself is met with considerable pain. I was recently laid off and have no insurance, should I be concerned?

  14. Leah Marie says

    About 12 hours ago, I fell off my skateboard and used my right arm to break my fall (it wasn’t my smartest choice). I think I landed a certain way on my arm or my elbow because now, I can’t bend it. It will only bend a little bit, but when I try bending it more, it really hurts, to the point where it feels like I’m about to break my arm. How do I fix this? I have a trip planned, and I leave in a few days, is there any way I can fixit before then?

  15. Gabbs says

    Dear Dr.Baumstark,

    48 hours ago I deliberately jumped chest to ground on a football game, I instinctively used both hands for supported land. My right elbow had a pop feel when that happened.

    To my incredible unfortunate luck I had a small crack on the same right elbow doing the same jump on the same field on the same day of the week. When I cracked my elbow 2 years ago I had a huge swelling and all the proper post fracture symptoms that follow. On the other occurrence (48 hours ago) my same right elbow did not swell or hurt and no restricted movement on supination or pronation .

    The only visible features is minimal swell around the edge and an inability to flex or stretch my arm.

    My question is, is it a recurring fracture (no post fracture symptoms?) Or is it a torn ligament/tendon/soft tissue.I’m kind of panicking about this mysterious elbow.

    Thank you for readying
    And I dearly appreciate it.

    • says

      An x-ray would shed more light on to the situation Gabbs. Not all fractures behave the same way. Just because there is no appreciable swelling like before does not mean that there is not a fracture. I would make an appointment to see the orthopedist and get it checked out. In the mean time, take it easy.

  16. Gurjit Singh says

    Hi doc !
    When I was 12 I had injury in my left elbow and after surgery doctor advised me to do some exercise . I didn’t care about this at that time but now I am 24 and since surgery I am not able to straighten my left arm. I checked it up with a physio therpist and he advised me to start excercises . I just want to know that is it possible to straighten back my left arm?

    Thanks

  17. Philip says

    I dislocated my elbow three weeks ago. It was an extremely painful and complete dislocation, which was reduced (reset) whilst I was briefly sedated.

    Luckily the x-rays showed no fractures. I have sensation everywhere right down to the tips of my fingers, I’m able to move my hands normally, and skin pressure tests are good, so it looks like no blood vessels or nerves were damaged.

    It’s still quite painful and it’s now affecting my shoulder a little, but what concerns me most is the fact that I cannot straighten the arm. It’s not so much that it hurts when I try (though it does a little) – it’s more like something has gone rigid and is stopping it from straightening. As if for all the world it wasn’t meant to go straight. I feel a tight stricture deep within the arm emanating from the elbow if I try to straighten it. I do not want to try to force it.

    What is likely to be stopping the arm from straightening? What sort of treatment might overcome that?

    • says

      Ouch.

      Swelling and inflammation from the trauma prevent ranges of motion. It is also entirely possible that there is some bruising and scarring in the joint. This too can restrict the motion.

      Your situation is a little bit tricky because if the elbow is ranged too aggressively it can increase the inflammation. I would start with moving the arm through the range that is available to it, with perhaps a slight stretch in to extension. This really does sound like something that needs to be managed by a physical therapist. I would ask the doc if it would be okay to start some structured PT.

      The shoulder can get annoyed because it gets drawn forward when then elbow is maintained in a flexed position. That should eventually go away as the elbow straightens.

      • Philip says

        Thank you for that info. So it’s swelling and inflammation, and possibly bruising and scarring in the joint, that is somehow causing that weird rigidity and so restricting the flexion of the elbow and thus the arm. Presumably these factors will heal, given time?

        I did see a physiotherapist who gave me some flexion exercises, but I found that they caused me a great deal of pain afterwards – though I might have been overdoing them. You seem to be recommending a gentle approach.

        I suppose at this stage I’m worried that the extension won’t return, or not fully.

        Thanks again.

  18. nabia ghana says

    Dco I felt from a ladder 2 months ago and dislocated my elbow..but at my place we do tert it the local and now I can’t bend it over my elbow what can do pls

    • says

      Nabia I would see a doctor to make sure that there is not a fracture. (Even if there was a fracture, it should be healed by now, but I would find out because it may affect how you treat the elbow)

      Once you have permission from the doctor, I would start moving the elbow through flexion and extension, gently at first and only using the hurt arm to move it. Do not put extra pressure from your other hand. I would do 10 repetitions of that every few hours during the day. Eventually you could increase the stretching intensity and frequency, but I would talk to a doc or a PT about the specifics.

  19. Michael says

    How’s it going my friend, I am back for a quick update. I posted on this site July 20th explaining how I was at 120 degrees of flexion and that my P.T. told me that was all I was going to get since 5 months had elapsed from my surgery. Well, as per your advice, I continued to work on my range and am now at 130 degrees of flexion! I guess you were right and she was wrong. It has now been over 6 months since my surgery, but, I feel their is still room for improvement. Like my new P.T said, the body is changing every day and will react to what your doing to it. Thanks for advising me to keep going after my “ex P.T.” told me to give it up. I will continue to update my progress on your awesome site, and hopefully, report a 140 reading eventually. Quick question for you as well, in your years of practice, have you seen others improve this late in the game, or am I an exception to the rule? If you have, what’s the latest you’ve seen people make improvements in their elbow range of motion?

  20. Jawan King says

    Look I’m 24 years old I dislocated my elbow 2 to 3 weeks ago can’t fully extended my arm yet I got a football game September 5, I need to what to do to speed this process up please help!

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