Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Elbow FAQ

Question:

I was pulling weeds in my garden by yanking on them with both hands when I heard and felt a pop in my left elbow. It swelled up and when that went away I find I can't straighten my elbow all the way. It just feels stuck. What could be causing this? What should I do?

Answer:

Most likely you will want to see a medical doctor -- either your primary care physician or an orthopedic surgeon. A proper examination is needed to identify the cause of your joint blockage. The fact that there was an audible popping sound that you felt may mean there is some kind of damage inside the joint. For example, there could be a torn ligament or a fragment of bone floating around inside the joint. When a loose body gets lodged in just the right spot inside a joint, it can create the kind of blockage you are describing. Bone spurs can also cause painful loss of elbow motion or other mechanical kinds of symptoms (e.g., catching, locking). Swelling can do the same thing. In your case, even though the major swelling has resolved, there could still be some fluid inside the joint limiting full motion. The physician will have an idea what is going on by asking you questions about the injury, type of symptoms, location of symptoms, and what makes the symptoms better or worse. Pain during the middle of elbow motion is caused by different lesions compared with pain at the beginning or end of joint motion. The examiner often has a pretty good idea what's wrong with the elbow even before examining it. The list of possible diagnoses can be formulated just based on the your responses to questions. For example, pain on the medial (inside) of the elbow points to the possibility of a ligamentous problem. On the other hand, symptoms like numbness and tingling down the arm may point more to a problem with nerve compression. There are special tests used to evaluate the status of the three nerves that pass through the elbow and other ligamentous tests to determine how stable the joint is. Various tests can be applied to the elbow coming from all four directions around the elbow (anterior or front, posterior or back, medial or side closest to the body, and lateral or side away from the body). The information collected during the exam guides the examiner in selecting the most appropriate tests to rule in/rule out specific conditions. Are imaging studies needed? Do visual inspection and palpation suggest the necessity of an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan? Will an arthroscopic examination be necessary? Once all the diagnostic information has been collected, then an appropriate plan of care can be determined. Don't hesitate to get some medical attention sooner than later. Early diagnosis in cases like this can often help prevent problems from getting worse or becoming chronic. Stephanie H. Hsu, MD, et al. Physical Examination of the Athlete's Elbow. In The American Journal of Sports Medicine. March 2012. Vol. 40. No. 3. Pp. 699-708.

*Disclaimer:* The information contained herein is compiled from a variety of sources. It may not be complete or timely. It does not cover all diseases, physical conditions, ailments or treatments. The information should NOT be used in place of visit with your healthcare provider, nor should you disregard the advice of your health care provider because of any information you read in this topic.
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