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What to do following a really painful hit to the elbow

Author: Steve Stretton
February 05, 2021

So you just hit your elbow really hard—the pain is through the roof and you don’t know what to do. If this incident has you rubbing elbows (and not in a socially graceful way), then read on. We’ll give you the lowdown on how to treat your injured elbow, and when you should see a doctor.

Anatomy of an elbow

Our elbows are made up of a trio of bones. These three are the humerus (arm bone), the ulna and the forearm bones, which is called the radius. There is a groove on the inner aspect of the humerus, and this is where the ulnar nerve is tightly coursed just behind the joint. When the nerve is pinched against the end of the bone, it gets irritated.

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Bumping the funny bone

Let’s first talk about minor elbow injuries that can happen to you. Like most people, you’ve probably experienced bumping your “funny bone”. This “bone” isn’t really a bone at all but a nerve called the ulnar nerve, and this is the reason why bumping that area feels “funny”. It sends a tingling sensation that you can’t quite shake off. Many have described this as similar to an electric shock pain, which is what happens when a nerve is irritated. 

The ulnar nerve sits just on top of the hard elbow. Because this part of the body ordinarily does not have a lot of fat, there’s nothing to cushion the nerve when it gets hit. 

If you hit your funny bone mildly, you will normally experience tingling and temporary numbness in the arm, all the way to your fingers, specifically the small and ring fingers. The pain will also most likely go away on its own. 

Leaning on your elbows often and for a prolonged period of time can also cause an irritation to the ulnar nerve.

Bruised elbow

Sometimes, trauma to your elbow will result in a bruised elbow. This can come from a direct blow to the elbow from a bump, fall, impact from sports or activities or a scuffle. Symptoms of a bruised elbow include bruising, tenderness and swelling. You can also feel pain when trying to move your elbow. 

What should you do after hitting your elbow?

The good news is that there’s no need to exert elbow grease in order for your elbows to feel better. Right after hitting your elbow, you should waste no time applying the RICE method, described below. For the best recovery results from the RICE method, you just have to be consistent and follow directions carefully:

Rest 

Stop what you’re doing and keep the area from being injured further by resting.

Ice

Place an ice pack in the elbow area for 15–20 minutes, three to four times a day. You can use a makeshift ice bag, but if you want your below to feel better faster, you should use a specialized elbow ice pack.

The amazing thing about this kind of ice pack is that they are already flexible when you take them from a frozen state (from the freezer). This is a pretty big deal because it means you save a lot of time. This is because most people who use a makeshift ice bag will still have to wait several minutes for the ice to defrost before using it. With an elbow ice pack, you can use it immediately. The product is flexible when frozen and can contour perfectly around your elbows.

Compress

You should apply a compress bandage around the affected elbow. This can be done during or after icing, and it helps in reducing swelling in the elbow. You may use an elastic bandage, or if you prefer to level up your elbow-care game, invest in an elbow ice pack that comes with professional straps. These straps not only ensure that the ice pack stays put around your elbows, but it can also act as compression. 

Elevate

In order to decrease chances of further swelling, elevate your elbow equal to or above your heart level. This prevents the overflowing of blood and other fluids to the area. You can do this by propping your elbow up with pillows on your side.

It’s important to do this RICE method the first 48 hours after you hit your elbow. Do this until the pain and swelling completely subsides.

That is the comprehensive first-aid to hitting your elbow. However, there may be instances when you may need more than just home care. If you’ve done the RICE method and the pain does not subside in any degree, you have to consider seeing a doctor.

When should you see a doctor for hitting your funny bone?

If your ulnar nerve has been badly impacted, you may lose sensation and experience muscle weakness or deterioration in your hand. This may indicate damage in your ulnar nerve. If this is the case, you will have what is known as ulnar nerve palsy or ulnar neuropathy.

A doctor will need to perform tests like Nerve Conduction Studies and electromyography to determine the damage extent to the ulnar nerve. Depending on the severity of the damage, treatment can range from corticosteroid injections in the area or surgery to repair the nerve. These two are options to consider if the chronic symptoms of an elbow pain doesn’t respond to simple treatments.

How do you know if it’s elbow fracture and not just a bruised elbow?

Elbow fracture is simply another term for broken elbow. This can result from a bad fall and landing on your elbows, a direct blow to the elbow or when the arm gets abnormally twisted. 

You may have the following symptoms if you have an elbow fracture:

  • Swelling and bruising of the elbow
  • Extreme pain
  • Stiffness in and around the elbow
  • The sound of “snap” or “pop” at the time of injury
  • There is visible deformity in the arm or elbow area
  • There is numbness or weakness in the affected area
  • There is bone protruding

If you experience any of the above symptoms, we urge you to see a hand surgeon immediately. 

We hope that you will be on a faster road to recovery now that you know how to care for your elbow. If you have questions about elbow pain management, please don’t hesitate to send us a message.

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