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Physical Therapy for Elbow Dislocation – Information, Exercises, and More

Until it’s injured, you may not realize how important your elbow is to completing everyday tasks and activities. 

Maybe you suffered an elbow dislocation after a bad fall, a car crash, or after a hard tackle while playing football. 

Whether you need surgery or not, physical therapy is an essential tool for pain relief and regaining your range of motion.

This guide will arm you with all of the information you need to know about:

  • Elbow dislocation
  • How elbow dislocation is treated
  • The best exercises to improve elbow strength and range of motion

What is Elbow Dislocation?

An elbow dislocation occurs when the bones that make up the elbow joint are forced out of alignment — typically when you land on an outstretched hand during a fall. The elbow joint is where the forearm (radius and ulna) meets the upper arm (the humerus).

Elbow dislocations can be classified into three types based on the extent of the damage:

  • Simple
  • Complex
  • Severe

Simple Elbow Dislocation

A simple elbow dislocation is a soft tissue injury, meaning there are no major injuries to the bones. These account for more than half of all elbow dislocations.

Complex Elbow Dislocation

A complex elbow dislocation causes severe injuries to the bones and ligaments, meaning a bone has been fractured. These account for 5 – 20% of all elbow dislocations. 

Severe Elbow Dislocation

In the most severe elbow dislocations, there is damage to the nerves and blood vessels around the elbow in addition to the bones and ligaments.

What Causes Elbow Dislocation?

A dislocated elbow occurs when any of the three bones in the elbow joint become separated or pushed out of their normal positions, though it takes considerable force for this to happen.

Falling Down

Falling is the cause of most elbow dislocations. More specifically though, the dislocation happens when you try to catch yourself with an outstretched arm. 

Following that instinct can mean popping the upper arm bone out of alignment with the elbow joint.

Slips, trips, and falls can happen to anyone, but older adults are most at risk of falling.


Car accidents can cause dislocated elbows, commonly when people instinctively reach out to brace for impact. It is during this impact that the elbow can pop out of position.

Sports Injuries

About half of all elbow dislocations in teens and young adults occur as a result of a sports activity.

Elbow dislocation during sports typically happens by significant force. This can occur from a hit while playing contact sports, such as football, hockey, or soccer. It can also happen following a fall (sometimes seen in basketball and pole vaulting).

Athletes can experience elbow dislocations in many sports including (but not limited to):

  • Gymnastics
  • Cheerleading
  • Wrestling
  • Rollerblading
  • Skateboarding
  • Skiing
  • Snowboarding
  • Ice skating

Elbow Dislocation Symptoms

In the case of a trauma or a fall, some elbow dislocation symptoms will develop almost immediately.

Some of these symptoms include:

  • Severe pain
  • Bruising
  • Swelling
  • Weakness in the joint
  • Inability to bend the arm
  • Obvious distortion of the elbow joint
  • Loss of feeling in the hand
  • No pulse in the wrist

Elbow Dislocation Treatment

Hurt your elbow and not sure what to do?

First of all — you should go to your doctor’s office, urgent care center, or hospital’s emergency room immediately if you:

  • Are unable to move your elbow
  • Have severe pain
  • Cannot feel your hand
  • Have no pulse in your wrist.

There are two primary goals for elbow dislocation treatment.

  1. Relieve pain in the elbow joint
  2. Restore functional range of motion

Treatment for a dislocated elbow varies according to the severity of the injury. Steps you can take to reduce pain while you wait to see a doctor include:

  • Rest
  • Apply ice
  • Keep the elbow elevated
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication


Also called a closed joint reduction, manipulation is when a doctor returns the forearm and upper arm bones to their normal positions. 

During this maneuver, which can be painful, the physician will pull down on the patient’s wrist while guiding the elbow back into the proper place.

The patient will need to wear a sling following the reduction to keep the elbow immobilized. 

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy for elbow dislocation is an essential step to recovery. 

Even when the elbow is in a sling, gentle exercises under the direction of a physical therapist are encouraged. If the elbow is kept immobile for too long, it may be difficult to achieve full range of motion in the future.


Although rare, surgery to repair elbow dislocation may be necessary if:

  • Your doctor is unable to return bones to their proper position with a closed joint reduction
  • Any of the dislocated bones are also fractured
  • Torn ligaments need to be reattached
  • The dislocation caused damage to the blood vessels or nerves around the elbow

Elbow Dislocation Physical Therapy – Will PT Help?

Even if your elbow dislocation is repaired either by manipulation/joint reduction or surgery, physical therapy is a key component to complete recovery.

The goal of physical therapy is to fully return strength as well as your range of motion through specific stretches and exercises.

If the elbow injury is sports-related, your physical therapist will tailor a sport-specific rehabilitation plan to prepare you for your return to the game.

In addition to overseeing exercises to improve flexibility and strength, physical therapists may use additional rehabilitation methods such as:

  • Joint mobilization
  • Soft tissue massage
  • Hydrotherapy

Best Elbow Dislocation Exercises

Physical therapy for a dislocated elbow will likely begin with exercises that are designed to increase range of motion in the joint, followed by exercises designed to strengthen the muscles surrounding the joint.

Your physical therapist will create an individual rehabilitation plan based on the severity of your injury and your activity level. 

A few exercises commonly used to improve elbow strength and range of motion include:

  • Elbow flexion and extension – bending and straightening your elbow
  • Forearm rotations
  • Grip strengthening exercises
  • Biceps curls
  • Triceps extensions

How In Motion O.C. Can Help With Elbow Dislocation

Elbow dislocations are the second-most common dislocations (behind shoulder dislocations) in adults and the most common dislocation in children.

In Motion O.C.’s team of physical therapists are highly trained in treating these dislocations. 

Not only is In Motion O.C. the #1 Physical Therapist in the entire country on Yelp, but you can also check out our client testimonials, and see what all the buzz is about.

*This information about physical therapy for elbow dislocation was reviewed by Dr Natalie Thomas, PT, DPT. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us here.
There’s no need to suffer after an elbow dislocation. Physical therapy at In Motion O.C. can help.

In Motion O.C.