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Stiff elbow release surgery

Elbow-release surgery can relieve pain and stiffness in the elbow joint

Orthopaedic surgeon about to perform stiff elbow release surgery
A stiff elbow is where you are unable to move your elbow joint in a full range of motion. It can greatly impact your ability to carry out day-to-day tasks like getting dressed, eating, and driving. In most cases a stiff elbow can be helped with non-surgical treatments like physiotherapy, splinting, casting, and manipulation If these options don't work for you, you may need surgery.

Call or book online today to arrange a consultation to discuss private elbow release surgery with a consultant of your choice at Circle Health Group.

This page explains the causes and symptoms of a stiff elbow as well as the surgical options available to treat it.

What is a stiff elbow release?

Elbow release surgery, also known as arthrolysis, is a procedure to remove scar tissue and bone growths, release the elbow joint and restore flexibility to the arm.

The cost of stiff elbow release surgery will depend on various factors, including the hospital and consultant you choose, as well as the extent of damage to your elbow.

If you are paying for your own treatment, we offer fixed-price payment packages, so you'll know all the costs upfront before you start treatment. We'll confirm everything in writing ahead of time, there are no hidden costs down the line, and your aftercare is included in the price.

We also offer flexible payment options that allow you to spread the cost of your treatment across monthly payments over one to five years, with interest-free options available.

If you have private health insurance, stiff elbow release surgery will usually be covered by your policy. Speak to your provider directly to find out. We work with all major insurers.

Stiff elbow or elbow contracture may be caused by:

  • Scarring of the soft tissue around the elbow joint
  • Small bone growths in the muscles, tendons, and soft tissue in your elbow
  • Injuries such as dislocations or fractures
  • Medical conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), or cerebral palsy

Common symptoms of stiff elbow

The main symptom of a stiff elbow is a reduced ability to move, particularly straighten, your affected arm. There may also be pain, depending on the cause of your stiff elbow.

At your first consultation, your surgeon will ask you what symptoms you have, and how long you have been having them. They will examine your arm and elbow joint for signs of swelling and check your range of movement (how much you can straighten and bend your arm).

If surgery is a good option for you, your surgeon will explain the procedure, including what happens before, during, and after your surgery. Ask your surgeon any questions you may have about the surgery during your consultation. Being well-informed and prepared for your surgery will let you know what to expect, help you feel more comfortable, and aid your recovery.

How is a diagnosis made?

A normal range of motion for an elbow is 30 to 145 degrees. A stiff elbow is diagnosed when this is lessened by 30 degrees or more.

After your consultation and physical examination, your surgeon will confirm your diagnosis with a test like an X-ray, CT, or MRI scan.

Your surgeon will decide on the best treatment for you, based on a combination of your physical examination and test results.

Why is this first consultation so important?

Your first consultation is important because your surgeon can discuss your history and symptoms, provide a diagnosis, and recommend a suitable treatment. It’s important that we spend this one-on-one time with you, to get to know you and your expectations for treatment. This allows us to provide individualised, tailor-made care.

Being prepared for surgery will help you feel less anxious and to know what to expect after your operation. Your consultant will ask you about any medical conditions or allergies you have, as well as any medications you are taking. They will perform a complete physical check-up to make sure you are fit for surgery. Your surgeon wants you to be as informed and comfortable as possible before your surgery, so ask any questions you may have to help put your mind at rest.

Your surgeon may tell you to stop taking certain medications including blood thinners and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs before your surgery. This is to prevent excessive bleeding during your operation.

You won't be able to eat or drink anything from midnight on the day of your surgery.

What lifestyle changes can I make before surgery?

Being as healthy as possible before your surgery will help you to recover faster. Some lifestyle changes you can make before having your surgery include:

  • If you smoke, try to give up
  • If you have any other medical conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes, try to get these under control before your surgery
  • Don't drink more than the recommended limits of alcohol per week (no more than 14 units over at least 3 days)
  • Lose weight if you are overweight
  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains
  • Be well informed and have realistic expectations of your surgery
  • Keep a positive mental attitude

What preparations do I need to make for after my surgery?

After your surgery, your arm will be immobilised in a sling for a few days, meaning you will need help with activities like cooking and housework.

Try to arrange for someone to care for you or check on you during this time. You may feel tired after your surgery, so try to take a break from social events and work to give yourself time to recover. Eat a healthy, nutritious diet and avoid alcohol and smoking to give your body the best chance of healing.

Some things you can do before your surgery to prepare and make your recovery easier include:

  • Prepare single-portion meals that can be easily heated up
  • Have clean, comfortable clothing on hand
  • Keep things you use often in easy reach like the TV remote control, books, and medications
  • Remove items you could trip over like rugs, low tables, and electrical cords

During elbow release surgery, several small incisions (cuts) are made at the side and back of the elbow joint. The joint is examined, and any scar tissue and bone growths are removed. The joint capsule is released allowing greater movement and flexibility.

Elbow release surgery is either done as open surgery (through incisions made in the elbow) or keyhole surgery where a camera and instruments are inserted through 5mm incisions in the skin. Your surgeon will decide which type of surgery is most suitable for you.

Elbow release surgery takes about one and a half hours. You will be given a general anaesthetic which means you'll be asleep for the procedure.

Recovering from any type of surgery is different for everyone and depends on many factors such as your general health, how complex the surgery was, and whether there were any complications. Talk to your consultant about what to expect after your surgery.

After stiff elbow release surgery, your wounds will be dressed, and a bandage applied to your arm. Your elbow may be placed in a continuous passive motion (CPM) machine that continually bends and straightens your arm. When you leave hospital, you may need to wear a brace and your arm will be put in a sling for a few days to provide support.

Physiotherapy is an essential part of recovery and should start as soon as possible after your surgery. You will need to have physiotherapy for up to 12 weeks after surgery.

How many nights do I need to stay in hospital?

You will normally spend one or two nights in hospital, depending on your recovery and whether there were any complications during your surgery. Talk to your consultant about how long you can expect to be in hospital.

Will I be able to drive home?

No. You will not be able to drive until you have adequate strength and movement in your arm (normally after around two weeks). You will need someone to drive you home from hospital after your surgery, or if you prefer, we can order a taxi for you.

How soon can I go back to work?

How soon you can go back to work depends on your recovery and the kind of job you do. Most people return to work within a few days, but if your job involves climbing, heavy lifting, or driving, it may be several weeks before you can return to work.

Remember, it’s important to go at your own pace during your recovery, and pushing yourself too hard can end up making things worse. Speak to your consultant about when you can expect to return to work after your surgery.

When will I be back to normal?

After your surgery, you will begin to recover at a steady pace, but it can take up to 12 weeks to be fully back to normal. Your surgeon can give you an idea of the time it will take you to make a full recovery based on your personal situation and circumstances.

Like all surgical procedures, there are risks and possible complications of stiff elbow release surgery. You can minimise the risk by being well-informed about your surgery and recovery and following your consultant and physiotherapist's instructions carefully.

Before your operation, your consultant will discuss the risks and possible complications of surgery with you, so that you can make an informed decision.

General risks of surgery include:

  • Shock
  • Blood loss
  • Infection
  • Blood clots
  • Chest problems
  • Problems passing urine (urinary retention)
  • Allergic reaction to anaesthesia

Risks specific to stiff elbow release surgery include:

  • Pain - it's normal to have some pain after surgery. This can be managed with rest and painkillers
  • Bleeding - you may experience slight bleeding on your dressings for the first couple of days after surgery. If bleeding is excessive or lasts longer than two days, contact your consultant
  • Swelling - your elbow may be bruised and swollen for a few days after surgery. Keeping your elbow elevated on a pillow, and applying ice packs wrapped in a cloth can help reduce swelling
  • Stiffness - it's common to have some stiffness in your elbow after surgery. This will subside as the swelling goes down and by doing the exercises prescribed by your physiotherapist
  • Infection - this is rare but can occur in around 2% of cases. Signs of infection include pain, redness, swelling, yellow or green discharge, and a foul smell at the site of your surgery. If you suspect you may have an infection, contact your consultant immediately
  • Nerve damage - rarely, (in around 3 to 5% of cases) temporary nerve damage can occur after stiff elbow release surgery. This may cause weakness or numbness of the forearm, hand, or wrist. Permanent nerve damage is very rare and affects less than 1% of people having elbow release surgery

We answer some of the most commonly asked questions about stiff elbow release surgery.

Why is my elbow stiff and painful?

Your elbow may be stiff and painful for many reasons including an injury, a medical condition such as arthritis, or wear and tear on the elbow joint. The only way to find out for sure why your elbow is stiff and painful is to arrange a consultation with a specialist.

How do I relieve elbow stiffness?

How you relieve elbow stiffness depends on the cause. Sometimes home treatments are enough to help with elbow stiffness, but in other cases, you may need medical treatment or surgery. Some things that may help with elbow pain or stiffness include:

  • Resting your elbow
  • Elevating your elbow on a pillow
  • Applying ice packs wrapped in a cloth or tea towel
  • Applying heat such as a hot water bottle
  • Taking over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen and paracetamol
  • Applying painkilling creams and gels

If your elbow stiffness doesn't go away or gets worse after trying these treatments, make an appointment with a doctor.

Can playing tennis, golf or badminton cause a stiff elbow?

Using your elbow a lot during sports such as golf, swimming, badminton, and tennis doesn't usually cause a stiff elbow, but it can cause a condition known as epicondylitis (inflammation of the tendons). Tennis elbow and golfers elbow are both forms of the condition which is caused by repetitive, forceful movements of the forearm and wrist. Symptoms include elbow pain, reduced grip strength, shaking hands, and sometimes numbness or tingling of the elbow, forearm, hand, and fingers.

How long does a stiff elbow last?

How long elbow stiffness lasts depends on the cause. Sometimes elbow stiffness may resolve on its own or with home treatments, but some types of elbow stiffness need medical treatment or surgery. If you are worried about elbow stiffness, or if your symptoms are getting worse or not going away, make an appointment with a doctor.

Why is my elbow stiff in the morning?

Occasional morning stiffness can be a sign of a bad night's sleep or poor sleeping position, but if it happens often, make an appointment with your doctor. Stiff joints in the morning can be an early sign of arthritis, or you may have another problem that needs treatment.

At Circle Health Group we have the experience and expertise to ensure the best possible care and outcome for our patients. As a patient with Circle Health Group you can expect the highest standards of care including:

  • Flexible appointment times and locations that are convenient for you
  • The freedom to choose which hospital and consultant best suit your needs
  • Personalised, consultant-led treatment plans tailored to your individual needs
  • Comfortable and safe private facilities maintained by expert multidisciplinary teams
  • Private ensuite rooms as standard
  • A range of delicious healthy meals
  • Affordable, fixed-price packages with aftercare included
  • Flexible payment options to help you spread the cost of your care

If you would like to see a consultant or learn more about stiff elbow release surgery, book your appointment today or call a member of our team directly on 0141 300 5009.

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