Elbow instability is the detachment or thinning of an elbow ligament often caused by throwing activities or sports, or a trauma that resulted in a dislocation. Instability can affect either the outer (lateral) or inner (medial) portion of the elbow.

Elbow instability is classified according to five criteria, which help in identifying the severity of the condition – acute, chronic, or recurrent, as well as the area of irritation, the direction of displacement, the degree of displacement, and any associated fractures.

This condition is symptomatically similar and sometimes confused with arthritis and tendonitis.

Those at Risk
Athletes involved in throwing sports generally develop medial elbow instability. And those experiencing trauma or earlier surgery to repair a dislocated elbow most often develop lateral elbow instability.

In order to accurately diagnose elbow instability, a physical examination with patient history is obtained – along with X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) enhanced with an arthrogram. An arthrogram is the process of injecting the elbow with a small amount of dye in order to enhance the clarity of the MRI, which aids in the capturing of ligament disruption.

The conservative treatment plan indicated for elbow instability includes anti-inflammatory medication – possibly combined with a period of immobilization.

In cases nonresponsive to conservative treatment, surgery is performed to reconstruct the biomechanics of the joint and repair the ligaments. Surgery is indicated only when the risk of long-term arthritis from prolonged friction is present.