The elbow is the junction of the upper arm bone, called the humerus, and the bones of the forearm, called the Ulna and Radius. The three bones are held together in place by three ligaments. The Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL), Radial Collateral Ligament (RCL) or also called the Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL), and the Annular ligament. These three ligaments work together to stabilize the elbow and allow it to complete complex movements without the bones dislocating.
What is a Sprain?
A sprain is when a ligament is stretched farther than it is structurally able to withstand. Your body will try to heal itself after a sprain by trying to immobilize the joint with swelling and pain. There are three grades assigned to sprains to articulate the amount of damage that has taken place.
Elbow Sprain Grades
Grade 1 Elbow Sprain
A Grade 1 sprain is just the stretching of the ligament beyond its tolerable range. Some fibers may be broken on a microscopic level, but the integrity of the ligament is intact and appears to the naked eye to have not been torn at all. A sprain that is grade 1 will heal on its own with time and R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, compression, and Elevation) and NSAIDs can be used for the pain and swelling. It may help to wear a sling during recovery.
Grade 2 Elbow Sprain
A Grade 2 elbow sprain is going to be the partial visible tearing of the ligament. This is going to be quite painful and swollen in the joint. A grade 2 sprain will heal on its own with R.I.C.E. and NSAIDs for pain, however the amount of time that it will take to recover will be considerably longer than a Grade 1 elbow sprain. To expedite healing a sling or splint may be considered to immobilize the joint during recovery. Physical Therapy may be prescribed to help re-establish strength and full range of motion.
Grade 3 Elbow Sprain
A Grade 3 elbow sprain is the complete tear of one of the three ligaments holding the elbow together. If this happens the elbow may dislocate, putting you at risk of nerve or blood supply damage. A Grade 3 sprain is going to pop loudly, be quite painful, swell, and possibly dislocate the elbow. Sprains of this nature are going to need emergency medicine and possible surgical intervention. A grade 3 sprain of the UCL results in Tommy John Surgery.