Elbow Instability | Orthopaedics | Loyola Medicine

Elbow Instability

Overview and Facts about Elbow Instability

Instability of the elbow is a condition in which the joint feels loose and that it might catch, pop or slip out of place during certain arm movements. This condition is usually the result of an injury such as an elbow dislocation. 

Symptoms and Signs of Elbow Instability

If you feel a locking, clicking or catching at the elbow joint, you may have chronic instability. You may also feel as if the elbow may slip out of place during certain arm movements. Athletes with this condition may experience a loss of speed or pain when making throwing motions. 

Causes and Risk Factors of Elbow Instability

Instability of the elbow is usually caused by a previous injury or trauma (such as a dislocation). It can also occur in athletes who participate in overhead activities, such as baseball, weightlifting or swimming, as well those involved in manual labor that requires repetitive overhead motions. 

Tests and Diagnosis of Elbow Instability

Your doctor will begin diagnosis by going over your medical history and discussing your symptoms. He/she will then check your elbow for any deformities or tenderness and ask you to move your arm in several directions to test for instability or weakness.

Imaging tests, such as an MRI or X-ray, are sometimes helpful to identify any tears, fractures or dislocations. 

Treatment of Elbow Instability

Depending on the area of the elbow affected, your doctor will recommend treatment best suited to your recovery and lifestyle. Nonsurgical treatments, such as anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, limiting activities that cause stress on the elbow joint or wearing a temporary brace are first steps to relieve instability.

Surgery may be the recommended course of treatment if nonsurgical options do not relieve instability or if you need full function of your elbow (i.e., if you are an athlete or manual laborer).

Surgical options for chronic elbow instability include:

  • Ligament reconstruction: Your surgeon replaces the torn ligament with a tissue graft
  • Fracture fixation: For patients with a broken coronoid bone - Your surgeon repositions broken bone fragments to a normal alignment and holds them together with screws.
  • Elbow arthroscopy
  • Open elbow surgery, involving either repair or reconstruction

Following surgery, you will need to wear a temporary splint or sling and begin strengthening exercise to improve range of motion and prevent scarring.