Hairline fractures may sound harmless, but they’re not something to brush off either. If you feel like you have a hairline fracture in your elbow, it’s a good time to read this article. We’ll discuss what a hairline fracture is, what causes it, its symptoms (what it feels like) and, most importantly, how to treat it.
What is a hairline fracture?
Also known as a stress fracture, a hairline fracture is a small crack within a bone. Although this injury is common among athletes whose sports or movement typically involve a lot of running and jumping, you don’t have to be an athlete to get this kind of stress fracture. Anyone who engages in regular physical activity that has a lot of repetitive movement can get a hairline fracture.
What causes a hairline fracture?
Hairline fracture happens when our bones or a group of bones are subjected to overuse or repetitive movement and action over a period of time. Our bones may be rigid, but not many know that they have a small degree of elasticity. This allows us to react to specific movements.
When strain and pressure is placed continuously on the bone over time, microscopic cracks may develop on the bone. These miniscule cracks are what are known as hairline fractures.
Another reason why hairline fractures might occur is a sudden increase or change in physical activity. Whether you’ve changed the duration, frequency or degree of physical work or exercise, these can also cause hairline fractures. For instance, if you double your running regime to six times a week and increase your mileage, you put yourself at risk to receive hairline fractures.
Hairline fractures in the elbow
Hairline fractures are mostly common in the lower extremities. This is because our legs absorb a lot of stress when running and jumping.
Hairline fractures in the arm area, especially the elbow, can also occur through accidents and also from certain activities.
There’s a study that has shown that athletes involved in upper limb dominated events and those who lift weights can cause olecranon (elbow) stress fractures. There’s also been a case when excessive push-ups resulted in hairline fractures in the ulna (forearm).
So, while hairline fractures in the upper extremities may not be as common as hairline fractures in the lower limbs, they still occur.
Who’s at risk for hairline fractures?
Hairline fractures are not exclusive to athletes or sporty people. These are some risk factors that increase your chances of developing a hairline fracture:
- If you participate in high-impact sports such as track and field, basketball, tennis, gymnastics, etc.
- Those who excessively and improperly lift weights risk getting hairline fractures in their elbows.
- Women and female athletes in general are more prone to hairline fractures. Dieting and exercise are known to affect menstrual cycles and premature osteoporosis. This increases the chance of getting an injury, one of them being hairline fractures.
- Problematic footwear and those with high arches in their feet, rigid arches or flat feet.
- If you already have a condition such as osteoporosis or take medication that can affect bone strength and density.
- The lack of vitamin D or calcium in one’s diet.
- Those with eating disorders or go under extreme and imbalanced diets, as these will affect bone health and nutrition.
The difference between hairline fractures in the elbow versus elbow fractures
The main difference between stress or hairline fractures in the elbow versus an elbow fracture is how they are obtained. Elbow fractures are likely a result from sudden trauma or an injury like a fall or a direct blow or impact to the elbow. When an elbow is fractured, bone dislocation may have happened, as well as sprains and strains.
Having a stress or hairline fracture in the elbow is likely the result of the bone being under stress or pressure over a long period of time. These kind of fractures do not occur immediately.
How is elbow stress or a hairline fracture diagnosed?
Today, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is considered to be the best way to diagnose stress fractures. This test, along with X-Rays, are used to determine whether your injury is a stress fracture, a fracture or a soft tissue injury.
Along with these tests, your doctor will also test your finger and arm movements and check the arm for areas of tenderness that may indicate broken bones.
What does a stress or a hairline fracture in the elbow feel like?
You may have stress or hairline fracture in the elbow if you experience any of the following:
- Painful sensation when you move your elbow or when you rotate your forearm.
- There is swelling on the back of the elbow.
- The elbow is tender to the touch.
- There’s bruising around the elbow, and this bruising may travel up the arm towards the shoulder. It can sometimes travel down the forearm toward the wrist.
- One or more fingers feel numb.
- You feel instability in the elbow joint.
How do you treat a stress or hairline fracture in the elbow?
First of all, rest is the most common and most effective treatment for stress or hairline fracture in the elbow. While you are resting, it is best to do the RICE method:
Immediately suspend your physical exercise or any activity that causes stress on your elbow. It’s important to not put weight on your elbows at this time.
Cold therapy or cryotherapy decreases swelling in any injured area. While any ice pack or make-shift ice pack will do in times of emergency, we highly suggest using a specialized elbow ice pack. This ensures that your elbow is wrapped comfortably and thoroughly while receiving the cold treatment. These ice packs are also flexible when frozen, which means that you can use them immediately from the freeze (no need to defrost). They will comfortably contour around the elbows as not only are they flexible, but they also have professional-grade adjustable straps. This will save you time and will also make recovery much more comfortable and pain-free.
Ice your elbow for up to 20 minutes, three or four times a day. Do this over the next 48 to 72 hours until the swelling is gone.
Applying compression will help reduce swelling in an injury, which is helpful during recovery time. You can use bandage gauzes and compression sleeves to do this. Alternatively, you can make your life much easier if you use these elbow ice packs, which already double as a compression sleeve. You can ice and compress at the same time when using this type of ice pack.
While doing all this, try to put your elbow equal to or above your heart level. In the case of elbows, this is most comfortably done when you can prop your elbow on a chair or couch’s armrest. If your armrest is not high enough, you can place pillows underneath your elbows.
We hope you’re now adequately informed and equipped to manage your elbow hairline fracture discomfort. If you have any questions, especially on how to manage pain, please feel free to send us a message!