Stiff Elbow

woman with elbow pain

The hinge joint of the elbow is designed to bend, straighten and rotate. A stiff elbow, also known as elbow contracture, is diagnosed when the elbow’s range of motion is limited, often due to a joint injury or medical condition such as arthritis or bursitis. Elbow stiffness limits the ability to rotate the arm, pick up objects, and bend and straighten the elbow.


  • Elbow pain
  • Limited range of motion
  • Swelling or tenderness of the elbow


  • Elbow stiffness can be caused by trauma, such as a fracture, dislocation or burn injury, so use precautions and safety equipment when engaging in potentially dangerous activities.

Risk factors

  • Arthritis
  • Bone growth into the muscles or tendons
  • Breaks, dislocation or other elbow trauma
  • Bursitis
  • Soft tissue scarring around the elbow


  • Imaging studies. X-ray and CT scans may be performed to detect loose bodies or soft tissue abnormalities that interfere with movement.
  • Medical history and symptom review. The doctor will discuss the patient’s lifestyle, review symptoms and previous injuries, and discuss treatments the patient has already tried.
  • Physical examination. The doctor will examine the elbow to determine range of motion limitations.


Conservative treatment can include heat or ice, rest and over-the-counter medications, as well as:

Surgical treatment can range from removal of the structures that prevent the elbow from moving, such as bone fragments or scar tissue, to total joint replacement.

Follow-up care

  • Patients should follow their doctor’s recommendations for restrictions on elbow movement during treatment.
  • Continue to perform the exercises your physical or occupational therapist recommends.
  • Use ice or heat to relieve pain and swelling.
  • Over-the-counter or prescription medications can be taken to relieve pain.


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