October 30, 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. Gayle Bowlby says:

    I am in very good physical condition- ive done farmwork all of my life, at sixty yrs old, I still unload a hundred bales of hay , stack and restack it , as well as fifty pound bags of horse feed , etc.. I was doing house work and something “twanged? while i was scrubbing a door , my elbow was in a bent position.. after that- the “funny bone” area, where you might hit it on your elbow, was very touchy and sore, I still had to do farmwork after that, as of today, i can not put my hand to my face as in drinking a coffee etc.. I did ice the area for a short time.. i need to keep doing my work , but i don’t want this to be perm either.. any suggestions? Could this be actually in my back rather than the actual joint of the elbow?

    • Gayle I obviously can’t diagnose you over the internet, but it sounds like one of the major nerves (ulnar nerve) that passes right through that “funny bone” area might have slid a bit to the side and then back into place. It can be quite painful. You need to baby the arm for at least a few days. I wouldn’t bend the elbow more than seventy degrees or so, even when you sleep.

      If the pain doesn’t start to go away within a few days, or if you get numbness in your ring or pinky fingers as a result of this I would see the doc, sooner rather than later.

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