Thrown Out: The Most Common Elbow Injuries Experienced by Athletes

elbow injuries

There are certain aspects of our bodies that we take for granted. We go about our lives, moving however we choose, without thinking about how fortunate we are that everything works the way it should.

Athletes, on the other hand, know that one small change or dysfunction can make a world of difference. For them, an injury can appear out of nowhere and end their career.

The best way to protect your body is by educating yourself. You can start by learning about these elbow injuries that are common in athletes.

1. Injuries to the UCL

The ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, is a ligament that connects your humerus (or upper arm bone) to your ulna (one of the bones in your lower arm). It’s one of the crucial ligaments that helps your elbow move.

As with other ligaments, you can injure your UCL from overuse or from using it incorrectly. For instance, if you throw with too much pressure or at the wrong angle, or if you fall and catch yourself with your arm, you might injury your UCL.

Some UCL injuries are more serious than others. They can range from mild inflammation to a full tear through the ligament. Severe tears are likely to need surgery.  Ever hear of Tommy John surgery?  Yes, Tommy John made this surgery famous many years ago by undergoing a repair to that ligament.

2. Bursitis of the Elbow

Your joints have small fluid-filled sacs inside them called bursae. The bursae serve as cushions to protect the various bones and tissues inside the joint.

Overusing any joint can lead to inflammation in that joint’s bursae, which is called bursitis. Elbow bursitis is a common injury among athletes who throw often or use their elbows in other ways.

You could have elbow bursitis if your elbow feels stiff and achy. It is also likely to be swollen and red. You may be in ongoing pain, but the pain is worse when you press on your elbow or move it.

3. Flexor Tendinitis

You have several flexor tendons that attach to your elbow. These tendons connect the muscles in your lower arm to the bones in your elbow. They help you have the full control and range of motion an athlete needs when they throw a ball or perform other maneuvers.

When you overuse your elbow, you can irritate and inflame those tendons. While rest tends to help the tendons heal, the “play through the pain” mentality can make the problem worse.

If you’re feeling pain in the inside edge of your elbow, especially if it’s worse when you throw, you may have flexor tendinitis.

4. Ulnar Neuritis

Beyond all the muscles, bones, and connective tissues, your elbow needs nerves to be able to control movements. One of the most important nerves is the ulnar nerve.

Your ulnar nerve extends from your upper arm to your lower arm, on the outside of your elbow. When you bend your elbow, the nerve stretches around the bump at the end of your humerus bone.

In some athletes, all the extra stretching that comes from their high-intensity throwing leads to inflammation in that nerve. If you have pain from your elbow down your forearm, feeling like a bolt of electricity, you could have ulnar neuritis.

5. Stress Fractures

Your muscles do more than allow you to move your body. They also serve as a type of shock absorber to keep your bones safe.

When you use a muscle too much, it becomes fatigued. That fatigued muscle can’t block as much pressure. This is when a stress fracture happens because too much impact pressure is passed into your bones.

In your elbow, the most common type of stress fracture is in the olecranon bone. This is the small bone at the tip of your elbow. Think of it as the kneecap of your elbow.

Stress fractures aren’t as easy to spot as other bone fractures so it’s important to watch for them. You will have ongoing pain that is more intense when you use your elbow but is still present when you’re resting.

6. Little Leaguer’s Elbow

Athletic injuries aren’t limited to high-level, professional athletes. In fact, one particular injury is specific to younger athletes: little leaguer’s elbow.

When a child’s bones are growing, the new growth at the end of each bone is weaker while it develops. As you can imagine, overusing your elbow puts extra pressure on the ends of the nearby bones.

When this happens too often, it can damage the developing bones and cause little leaguer’s elbow. This condition is only seen in kids around ten years old or younger, and it causes pain along the inner elbow.

7. Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD)

While most of the common elbow injuries are well-observed and understood, this isn’t always the case. Osteochondritis dissecans, or OCD, is somewhat of a mystery.

Your elbow has soft cartilage to cushion the bones as they move against each other. In some athletes, though an area of bone beneath the cartilage will die.

Researchers know that this bone death happens because the area loses blood flow. The question is why blood stops flowing to the area. They do know, however, that it is most common in athletes in their teens or early 20s.

In some cases, the affected piece of the bone will break off, making the joint unstable. The bone piece can fall into the joint space too, which can be painful and alarming.

In addition to pain, the most recognizable sign of OCD is an elbow or another joint that feels like it locks or sticks in place.

8. Valgus Extension Overload

Valgus extension overload, or VEO, is another elbow injury that sounds more complex than it is.

When you throw with your elbow, your olecranon and your humerus bones twist against each other. Initially, you have plenty of cartilage to cushion that pressure.

As you get older or after overusing your elbow, though, that cartilage wears away. When it becomes too thin, the friction on the bones causes abnormal bone growths like bone spurs to develop.

This extra bone growth creates mobility problems as well as pain in your elbow.

9. Tennis Elbow

Most people have heard of tennis elbow, but few people realize what it is.

The clinical name for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis. The lateral epicondyle is a tendon along the outer edge of your elbow.

If you overuse your elbow or if you don’t stretch it well enough, the extensor tendons (the tendons that stretch the fingers open) can develop painful inflammation where they all converge onto the elbow. The injury is common in tennis players because they use the outside of their elbow so often, but it can happen to any athlete, and/or anyone that over uses their extensor tendons.

If you have tennis elbow, you’ll notice pain that is particularly strong when you do actions that use your outer elbow, like shaking hands, turning a doorknob, or picking up a glass.

10. Golfer’s Elbow

Think of golfer’s elbow as the flip side of tennis elbow.

As we explained, tennis elbow is inflammation in a tendon on the outside edge of your elbow called the lateral epicondyle. On the inside edge of your elbow, the flexor tendons of your fingers have all their muscles converge to the medial epicondyle. When that gets inflamed and painful, you have golfer’s elbow.

When you swing a golf club, you put a lot of pressure on the inside of your elbow on your dominant arm. Baseball players and other athletes who do similar motions are at risk for this common injury.

Like tennis elbow, you can lower your risk for golfer’s elbow by stretching your arms and elbows more thoroughly. If you develop the condition, though, rest and ice are likely to calm your symptoms.

What to Do if You Suspect an Elbow Injury

It’s easy to know that you have some type of elbow injury because your elbow will hurt or it won’t have the range of motion it used to have. The difficult part is knowing what your injury is.

Most of the injuries above happen from the same types of overuse and have similar symptoms. For that reason, it’s important to visit a medical professional to find out your specific injury.

Our team will begin by discussing your symptoms and your typical activities. This will help us narrow the list of potential issues.

Next, we’ll move on to any necessary diagnostic tests like x-rays, MRIs, or other imaging tests. This gives us a clear understanding of what your injury is, how severe it is, and how to treat it.

There are a variety of treatment options for elbow injuries. In some cases, your only choice may be to let your elbow rest while it recovers. In other instances, you could need treatments like elbow surgery or physical therapy.

How to Prevent Elbow Injuries in Athletes

Elbow injuries are uncomfortable and frustrating problems for anyone. For an athlete or anyone else who uses physical skills to make a living, though, they can be life-altering.

There are plenty of ways to prevent these injuries and keep yourself in the game for longer.

1. Listen to Your Body

As an athlete, you’re a competitive person who is always pushing yourself to be the best. That motivation often leads athletes to push themselves through any pain they’re feeling.

Your body is sending you pain for a reason. It’s important to know the difference between the typical discomfort of a hard-working muscle and pain that goes above and beyond.

Instead of sticking to your routine in all circumstances, pay attention to your body. If you start to feel discomfort in your elbow, take a break. Think of it this way: you can take a one-day break today to avoid the injury or you can keep going and later take a 30-day break to recover.

2. Get Your Form in Check

When you throw or make other motions that use your elbow, having proper form does far more than give you the best possible performance. It can help you avoid injuries, too.

Our elbows are meant to function in certain ways and have pressure in certain areas. Throwing with your arm bent at the wrong angle can put pressure on the wrong parts of your elbow and lead to serious injuries.

If you are a primarily self-taught athlete, it could be an investment in your future to hire a trainer who specializes in your sport. They can observe and refine your form so stay safe while improving your performance.

3. Take Stretching Seriously

When you need to fit your workout into your schedule but time is tight, stretching is often the first part to go. Unfortunately, that can be a more damaging decision than you realize.

Stretching your arms is one of the most vital ways to avoid injuries. Make take for elbow exercises in particular, and make them part of your routine including on your rest days.

4. Vary Your Workout

As great as it would be to see ongoing incremental improvements in every workout, that isn’t reality. Your muscles need time to recover and grow.

Mixing up your practice and workout routine is a way to let your muscles rest without wasting a day. Work on different muscle groups on different days, or focus on different movements each day. It can take time and experimentation to find the right balance, but your future health is worth it.

Staying Safe from Elbow Injuries at Any Activity Level

Whether athletics is your career or your favorite hobby, the thought of elbow injuries taking it out of your life is stressful. Put those worries to good use by using the information and precautions above to create a safer practice regimen.

If you have an elbow injury or an injury to your wrist or hand, our specialists are here to help. Contact our practice to schedule your appointment and get on the road to healthier functioning.

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