Elbow Stiffness

UW Medicine Hand Center
A Passion for Life & Healing

Elbow stiffness:

Elbow stiffness may develop after an injury, after surgery, or because of arthritis. The elbow is a complex joint that allows you to bend, straighten, and rotate the forearm. If elbow stiffness is great enough to limit motion, you may lose a significant amount of function in your daily activities. Elbow stiffness can even affect your ability to do simple things such as brush your teeth, comb your hair, or feed yourself.

Elbow stiffness can be caused by changes in the joint (intrinsic) or changes in the tissues around the joint (extrinsic). Joint changes that may cause stiffness include arthritis after injury, degenerative arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or changes after infection. Extrinsic changes that may cause stiffness include scar formation or abnormal bone formation (heterotopic ossification).

Our evaluation of your stiff elbow will include a detailed clinical history and physical exam during your clinic visit. We will review x-rays of your elbow, and may request a CT scan or MRI scan to better evaluate the joint and surrounding soft tissues.

The goal of stiff elbow treatment is to restore pain-free motion that improves function. Non-operative measures to treat elbow stiffness include physical therapy for range of motion exercises and stretching. Sometimes a splint can be made that will slowly help straighten or bend your arm over time. Surgery may be required if you fail to improve with these conservative measures. If you have had previous surgery, or if there is extensive involvement of the tissues around the joint, an incision may be required to expose all of the problematic areas for correction. The operation may require release of the joint capsule or covering, release of scarred muscle or ligaments, removal of abnormal bone or joint contents, and possibly release of nerves if they are tight or involved in scar. Some patients with less severe stiffness may be a candidate for an arthroscopic or minimally-invasive surgery in which small instruments are introduced into the elbow joint through the skin and a camera is used to guide the surgery. Recovery from this type of surgery is generally quicker, but only select patients are candidates for this type of approach. The surgeons at the University of Washington Hand Center are experts in the managment of all types of elbow stiffness, including patients stiffness after an injury or surgery. Elbow stiffness may develop after an injury, after surgery, or because of arthritis. The elbow is a complex joint that allows you to bend, straighten, and rotate the forearm. If elbow stiffness is great enough to limit motion, you may lose a significant amount of function in your daily activities. Elbow stiffness can even affect your ability to do simple things such as brush your teeth, comb your hair, or feed yourself.

Elbow stiffness can be caused by changes in the joint (intrinsic) or changes in the tissues around the joint (extrinsic). Joint changes that may cause stiffness include arthritis after injury, degenerative arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or changes after infection. Extrinsic changes that may cause stiffness include scar formation or abnormal bone formation (heterotopic ossification).

Evaluation of your stiff elbow will include a detailed clinical history and physical exam during your clinic visit. We will review x-rays of your elbow, and may request a CT scan or MRI scan to better evaluate the joint and surrounding soft tissues.

The goal of stiff elbow treatment is to restore pain-free motion that improves function. Non-operative measures to treat elbow stiffness include physical therapy for range of motion exercises and stretching. Sometimes a splint can be made that will slowly help straighten or bend your arm over time. Surgery may be required if you fail to improve with these conservative measures. If you have had previous surgery, or if there is extensive involvement of the tissues around the joint, an incision may be required to expose all of the problematic areas for correction. The operation may require release of the joint capsule or covering, release of scarred muscle or ligaments, removal of abnormal bone or joint contents, and possibly release of nerves if they are tight or involved in scar.

Some patients with less severe stiffness may be a candidate for an arthroscopic or minimally-invasive surgery in which small instruments are introduced into the elbow joint through the skin and a camera is used to guide the surgery. Recovery from this type of surgery is generally quicker, but only select patients are candidates for this type of approach. The surgeons at the University of Washington Hand Center are experts in the management of all types of elbow stiffness and will work with you to create an effective treatment plan