Elbow surgery is generally performed in response to pain and loss of motion in the area, but it’s used to resolve or alleviate lots of different conditions. During the recovery stages, immediate use of the elbow won’t be possible, so finding ways to make the following weeks and months easier is key.
The procedures typically entail repairs to damaged tissue/tendons to relieve pressure on different parts of the joint or the removal and/or replacement of certain parts of the elbow to improve movement and stability.
In this article, we’ll explore the role of elbow surgery, managing expectations post-surgery, and approaches you can take in the recovery period to achieve the best healing results.
Understanding Elbow Anatomy
The elbow connects the forearm and the upper arm via a hinge joint. There are three bones inside it - radius, humerus, and ulna.
The ends of these bones are covered in cartilage, which creates a smooth surface that enables easy movement in the joint.
A series of ligaments hold the humerus, radius, and ulna together, forming what’s called a ‘joint capsule.’ This is a sac filled with fluid that encompasses the joint and keeps it lubricated.
Attached to the elbow are also tendons and muscles, which work together to enable movement.
There are three main nerves in the elbow: the radial nerve, median nerve, and ulnar nerve. The purpose of nerves is to carry electrical impulses to the brain; they help us to understand sensations, such as temperature, pain, and vibrations.
Reasons Behind the Need for Elbow Surgery
Several conditions or repetitive behaviors can lead to needing elbow surgery, the main ones of which are:
- Fractures: a partial or complete break of a bone(s)
- Arthritis: a condition that causes pain in the joint
- Lateral epicondylitis, also called tennis elbow: the swelling or tearing of tendons that causes pain around the elbow
- Medial epicondylitis, also called golfer’s elbow: pain experienced on the inside of the elbow due to repeated strain to the tendon/muscle
- Cubital tunnel syndrome: feelings of numbness and/or shooting pain caused by irritation to the ulnar nerve
- Deformities: skeletal deformity caused by trauma to the joint, such as fracture complications
- Elbow bursitis: inflammation of the fluid-filled sac that protects the elbow (the olecranon bursa)
Different Types of Elbow Surgery
There are quite a few different kinds of elbow surgery out there. Each one interacts with the elbow differently…
A synovectomy removes the membrane that lines the elbow joint (called the synovium). Recovery is approx.
Recovery time: 2 months.
Arthroscopic/surgical debridement removes growths and excess debris (cartilage or bone) in or around the joint and is a common treatment for osteoarthritis.
Recovery time: 3-6 months.
Elbow interposition arthroplasty involves the reshaping of the ends of the bones and the fitting of a small piece of soft body tissue between the two to prevent the bones from rubbing together.
Recovery time: up to 4 months.
Total elbow replacement/arthroplasty replaces damaged components with artificial ones. Depending on the need, these implants can be either linked or unlinked by the surgeon for best results.
Recovery time: at least 3 months.
Elbow fracture open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) involves re-aligning pieces of fractured bone(s) inside the elbow and securing them in this position with screws, metal plates, etc.
Recovery time: 6 weeks (initially).
UCL reconstruction replaces a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) with a tendon taken from elsewhere in the body. It’s also sometimes called “Tommy John surgery” after the famous baseball pitcher who was the first person to undergo this surgery.
Recovery time: 6-9 months.
Lateral epicondylitis release surgery treats tennis elbow by releasing tension on the extensor tendon.
Recovery time: 3 months minimum.
Medial epicondylitis release surgery treats golfer’s elbow by repairing the inflamed medial common flexor tendon.
Recovery time: 3 months minimum.
Cubital tunnel syndrome surgery relieves pressure on the ulnar nerve on the inside of the elbow.
Recovery time: up to 18 months, depending on nerve damage.
What to expect after elbow surgery?
Most patients leave surgery with either a sling or splint on the affected arm.
Slings help limit movement in the area, promoting healing and reducing the risk of complications by overusing or knocking the injured elbow joint.
If given a sling, it’s recommended that you wear this for a minimum of 4 weeks. If this is to change, your doctor should inform you of any and all guidance post-surgery.
Splints hold the bones and joints together to promote healing in a specific formation. This reduces movement but promotes the correct healing of a fracture.
How to manage initial elbow pain?
Despite elbow surgery usually only affecting one arm, patients are often surprised by the impact of temporarily losing one arm while it heals post-surgery. It’s important to plan ahead and set expectations beforehand to make life easier once you’re discharged from the hospital.
Some seemingly basic tasks, such as reaching, lifting, and pulling, are made much harder when completed by one arm alone.
Here are some things you can do to help make the return home less stressful…
- Move any priority food items to the lower shelves of your cupboards and fridge/freezer to make them easier to access; even better, have some meals pre-prepared ahead of your return.
- Put a loofah or flannel in an easy-to-reach place in your bathroom to help when washing so you can clean all areas of the body.
- Don’t rush back to driving straight away and only return to it when you’re confident you have full control of the vehicle.
- Avoid fully closing any internal doors, reducing pressure on your wrist and arm on handles and allowing more flexibility in how you move between rooms (i.e. nudging doors open with fingers or feet!)
How to boost your recovery process?
Unlike recovery for other joints in the body, like knee replacement or hip replacement, the elbow is fairly easy to support and stabilize.
Its function as a hinge joint limits the direction of movement, meaning it only has to be supported in one way. Similarly, its location in the body makes it easier to ‘cushion’ with a sling or splint by shifting weight placement and pressure to the shoulder area.
But, despite this healing process being seemingly more straightforward, it should still be taken seriously and cannot be rushed.
Historically, patients of elbow replacement surgery are more likely to experience post-procedural complications than patients of knee or hip surgery.
This is usually because people wrongly assume they can return to “normal life” more quickly than they should or that they underestimate their reliance on the elbow joint when undertaking simple, mundane tasks and put the elbow under too much strain too soon after surgery.
So, what is the fastest way to recover from elbow surgery? We’ve got you covered with five ways that could ease the pain and bring back that much needed mobility.
Rest the elbow
This may seem obvious, but it’s the first ‘task’ to be deprioritized once patients start to feel better or grow tired of waiting.
As well as resting the elbow itself, it’s important to rest your body too. Anesthetics are often used locally in elbow surgery and can have several side effects, including nausea, dizziness, and headaches. These should pass after 24 hours, but this time frame should not be ignored.
Equally, the experience of planning and undergoing surgery can be quite stressful and anxiety-inducing, so time should also be taken to practice mindfulness and have mental rest following the procedure.
When undertaking any movement post-surgery, it’s important to start small and slow and gradually rebuild your strength and stamina.
You won’t immediately spring back to the same level of mobility or strength as you had prior to surgery, so be patient and make sure to consult professional medical advice throughout.
It’s also important to watch out for potential problems, which might manifest themselves through numbness, tingling, weakness, or excessive stiffness in the hand or fingers. If you experience any of these, seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Physical therapy to build strength
Physical therapy plays an important part in recovery post-procedure.
You should be given a basic physical therapy plan and some recommended movements on leaving the hospital.
It’s important to follow medical guidance on this throughout your recovery and to avoid excess rotation (pronation/inward or supination/outward) of the forearm, as this can add stress to the synovial hinge joint.
The impact of nutrition
‘You are what you eat,’ so treat your body kindly as your elbow heals, especially in the initial days and weeks.
Proteins and carbohydrates should be a key focal point of your diet after joint replacement surgery. These promote healing and provide the calories needed to provide the body with energy while it does this.
Calcium is good for bone healing. Vitamin C is useful for healing ligaments and tendons, which hold bones together and provide structure to the joint.
Red light therapy
Alongside recommended physical therapy, there’s a further method of at-home support that should be incorporated into your healing journey…red light therapy!
Red light has the ability to treat and speed up the recovery of damaged tissues, which is particularly beneficial after surgery. In the meantime, it can help you manage pain in the days, months, and years following the initial injury.
How can red light therapy speed up your recovery?
Light therapy harnesses specific red light energy at the site of pain/injury to catalyze cell renewal, increase circulation, and promote healing and recovery.
With our MOVE+ device, treatment sessions can happen whenever and however you want.
Whether you’re still on bed rest or on the go between appointments, the device is mobile, rechargeable, and comes in a compact case, so it can be used (almost) anywhere.
The adjustable strap also allows for tailored application, whether through repeated movement around the area or targeted penetration strapped to the pain source.
By having multiple light emitter modules, our device facilitates optimum personalization, supporting patients in slowly building their treatment plan and fluctuating session intensity depending on need and stage of recovery.
The benefits of red light therapy for elbow pain
By increasing blood flow in the target area, red light therapy supports the body’s natural cleansing process, removing waste products from the area and encouraging good circulation.
This enhanced circulation also improves inflammation and swelling, helping the patient to feel more comfortable as the area heals.
Additionally, red light therapy increases the movement of electrons, sending energy straight to the cells and increasing the speed of cell regeneration and recovery.
To join the thousands who are utilizing the holistic healing potential of light, try a 30-day at-home trial of the MOVE+ Pro - the next generation of laser light technology.
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