A “Slipping” Elbow

When an elbow joint has become unstable, it may feel like it's sliding out of place, or it may pop or feel like it catches when moving it in certain ways. Previous elbow surgery, an elbow deformity, or in most cases, a fall on an outstretched hand are the most common causes of elbow instability.

An orthopedic doctor is well-equipped to properly diagnose elbow instability. During an exam, he or she will typically:

  • Take a medical history
  • Ask about any falls or physical trauma
  • Move the elbow in many directions, looking and listening for various symptoms
  • Test arm strength
  • Rule out nerve damage
  • Rule out conditions other than elbow instability

It's common for the orthopedic doctor to take an x-ray because they are so effective at showing subtle misalignments, fractures, and dislocations. An MRI is not always necessary to properly diagnose elbow instability, but if the doctor determines he or she needs a closer look at the elbow's surrounding soft tissues, the MRI will enable that.

Most cases of elbow instability can be treated with a nonsurgical prescription of physical therapy, medications, activity modification, and/or bracing. If there is a fracture or severe soft tissue injury, surgery is usually required. Athletes with less severe instability but who need to perform at high levels may require surgery to get them back to full function.