Elbow injuries can affect athletes in a variety of sports and often plague those who only engage in recreational physical activity. They can sometimes even be the result of conditions unrelated to strenuous physical activity. Elbow injuries can be difficult to recover from and require plenty of rest, attention to physical therapy and commitment to other recovery methods to return the joint to full health. Elbow braces can make the recovery process more efficient and are often a key tool used to complement other pain relief and recovery methods. When used correctly, an orthopedic elbow brace can go a long way in ensuring you get back to health faster, while also reducing the risk of re-injury to your joint. Here are five questions and answers that will help anyone with an elbow injury maximize the benefits of an elbow brace during recovery.
What injuries can an elbow brace help heal?
While the elbow is not as prone to injury as weight-bearing joints like the knee and hip, it can still sustain many fairly serious injuries. Many of these injuries can be treated in part with an elbow brace.
Some typical injuries include fractures, stress fractures, and inflammation caused by conditions such as tendinitis, arthritis, bursitis, and lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow). Inflammatory injuries are often caused by overuse or repeated use of the elbow.
Tendinitis is a particularly common condition that occurs when the muscles and tendons that connect to the elbow become inflamed from overuse and strain. Tennis elbow works in much the same way. In these cases, symptoms include pain or discomfort in the elbow and forearm, as well as weakness in the grip. UCL injuries, such as sprains, strains, and tears, are also common among athletes who throw more, such as baseball pitchers.
How does the elbow brace work?
Elbow braces work the same way as most other orthopedic braces. Elbow braces offer three main benefits to people with elbow injuries; compression, support, and heat therapy.
Many elbow braces provide pressure therapy for the joint and upper forearm. This compression absorbs the force transmitted through the soft tissue to the pain point on the outside of the elbow. Compression can also help provide more stable blood flow to the injured elbow, which can provide therapeutic oxygen. This, in turn, allows the wound to heal faster and reduce pain.
The elbow brace also provides support to the injured area and surrounding structures. The support of an elbow brace helps keep the joint in place after an injury, protecting the elbow from moving around or stressing it, limiting the risk of aggravating the injury. Many elbow braces also change the angle at which the tendons work. This in turn changes the direction of the force exerted by the joint and relieves symptoms of conditions like tennis elbow and golfer's elbow. This gives the injured area time to recover.
A final advantage of elbow braces is that they often heat the area by covering the joint and keeping it warm. Hyperthermia promotes blood flow and helps muscles relax. The warmth dilates blood vessels, promotes blood flow, and helps sore and tight muscles relax, which can also help reduce pain.
What types of elbow braces are available?
There are many different elbow braces to choose from, and which one you choose depends on the type of injury, its severity, and where you are in the recovery process. Some common types of elbow braces include buckles (eg, for epicondylitis), shoulder straps (eg, tennis elbow), and sleeves (eg, golfer's elbow). We briefly discuss these types below, and more information on the types of tennis elbow braces and their respective healing mechanisms can be found here.
A snap-on elbow rest consists of a plastic clasp or clip that fits the arm, is held in place with a strap, and the pressure point is on the muscle, a few centimeters below the painful point of the elbow. Buckle provides support and compression to help absorb and prevent unwanted movement or force in the elbow. While snap-on braces work well because they can be applied precisely to the point of pain or injury, they are often more expensive because they need to be installed correctly to be effective.
Strap elbow braces are simple strap braces commonly used to treat tennis elbow, usually wrapped around the forearm below the elbow. Some have extra pressure pads that sit on the muscles below the pain point in the elbow. The shoulder girdle works by compressing the upper forearm and absorbing external forces that can aggravate the injury. Elbow straps also change the way your elbows move, preventing unwanted movements and providing maximum support. Strap elbow braces are generally inexpensive, easy to install and offer custom compression levels. However, they may not be as precise as button-on braces and do not provide any heat therapy.
Finally, the elbow sleeves provide compression, support and warmth to the entire elbow. The sleeves are tightened around the upper forearm and work in much the same way as a strap brace, providing customized support and compression for specific injuries. Elbow sleeves provide warmth to the painful area, which may aid the healing process. The sleeve also supports the entire joint, which means it can treat multiple injuries or support multiple arm structures around the joint. However, this type of elbow brace is bulkier and less accurate in terms of compression and support.
What other treatments can be used with an elbow brace?
When recovering from an elbow injury or elbow condition, there are various treatments that can be used in conjunction with an elbow brace. Here are some of the most common recovery methods. Always consult a doctor, physical therapist and/or sports medicine professional about the appropriate recovery procedure for your specific elbow injury or condition.
RICE: A combination of (R)est, (I)ce, (C)compression, and (E)elevation. This approach is usually the treatment of choice for tennis elbow within the first 48 hours of injury or symptoms. Rice can relieve pain and also reduce swelling and promote healing. Here we discuss the importance of resting your injured elbow to improve your chances of recovery.
- Medications: NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen, can relieve pain and can also treat acutely inflamed tissue.
- Ice Massage: Apply ice cubes directly to the skin of the affected area in a circular massage. Limit ice massages to less than five minutes, no more than twice a day.
- Activity modification: This includes identifying the underlying cause of the injury, if it is related to athletic performance, and correcting behavior, which may mean increasing rest, modifying equipment, and improving incorrect form and technique.
- Physical Therapy: Exercises that emphasize flexion and extension of the elbow and wrist or stretching of the wrist and forearm. This also includes exercises to strengthen your grip.
- Extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT): ESWT therapy sends sound waves to the body to relieve pain.
- Topical steroids and/or cortisone creams or injections: When applied or injected, these treatments can reduce inflammation and reduce pain.
How to properly wear and maintain elbow pads?
Knowing how to properly use an elbow brace is critical to the effectiveness of the brace in treating injuries. Improperly worn braces can render support ineffective and even adversely affect injury. When choosing an elbow brace, be sure to consult with your doctor, physical therapist, or sports medicine professional to make an elbow brace fit your needs. Let a medical professional teach you how to properly wear an elbow brace and practice putting it on and off. Some general tips to keep in mind include making sure the brace is positioned securely (but not too tightly) around the painful area, and that the brace allows some movement of the upper arm and wrist.
Proper maintenance of the elbow brace is also very important. Most elbow supports are washable. Make sure to follow the instructions that came with your elbow brace on how to clean the brace. Contact a medical professional if you are not sure how to clean the stent. Make sure all components of the stand are working as they should and that everything is attached and secured.