Elbow instability is where damage to ligaments around the elbow joint causes the joint to feel 'loose' and unstable. It may sometimes feel as if it will dislocate.
The direct cause of elbow instability is the outside ligament of the elbow (the 'lateral ligament') either losing tissue and becoming thinner, or where it becomes detached. This can in turn be caused by:
- Trauma / impact (such as a direct blow to the elbow).
- Falling on an outstretched hand ('FOOSH').
- Repetitive stress injury ('RSI'), typically from repetitive manual work or playing a specific sport involving overhead arm movement.
In some cases, instability may be caused by prior surgery to the elbow or where the person has a disorder affecting either collagen or soft tissue.
Apart from the symptoms described above, there may also be a clicking sound or feeling of catching when moving the elbow joint. In some cases, the elbow may lock in place.
Tests / Diagnosis
Diagnosis of elbow instability involves a physical examination and a review of medical history. An x-ray and / or MRI scan may also be needed, since the same symptoms can in some cases be caused by fracture of the ulna bone in the forearm. In some instances it can be hard to diagnose the condition, as the muscles around the elbow naturally contract when you are awake and only relax when you are asleep or under anaesthetic – this is why some cases of elbow instability are only diagnosed when the patient is under a general anaesthetic.
There are some non-surgical treatments for the condition, for example a combination of physiotherapy, and using braces and pain medication may suffice. In other cases, surgery i.e.: an elbow stabilisation may be required to repair or reconstruct ligaments.