BJJ Elbow Injury – Recovering After Getting My Elbow Popped

Story Time

The nervousness I felt at previous tournaments didn’t seem to plague me that morning.  I woke up feeling fired up and ready to compete.  Training had been going great and I felt in amazing shape.  Today was my day, I just knew it.  I felt confident.

Even when my opponent put me in the triangle I felt sure I would find a way out.  The world got blurry and the next thing I knew I was standing up and his hand was being raised.

I was a little embarrassed I was nearly put to sleep by a triangle choke. When he says “He man, sorry about your arm.  Are you OK?”,  there is some confusion.

“What about my arm? ” Rewinding in my head, I have a vague memory of him switching from the triangle. “Yeah it popped, and made a few noises, man.”

Very tight kimura shoulder lock.
No armbar is shown in this photo

“It did?” I asked.

The confusion dies down as I start to realize that my elbow feels generally funny.  There isn’t pain, it is just almost like a tickle.  Maybe the fluid starting to swell to protect my elbow?  I almost wanted to laugh, but a part of me knew it was serious and that how I acted now would make a difference later.  Without hesitating I left the venue and got some ice on it.

This was about 5 years ago.

My Recovery From A BJJ Elbow Injury

The Disclaimer

I am not a medical professional in any way shape or form.  If I had things to do over again, I would have gone directly to a doctor to receive advice.  At the time I actually had fairly good insurance I never used because I was worried about missing work.  Don’t be a fool like me.

As you read about how I recovered please notice the areas where I feel like I made mistakes and avoid them.  Finally, years later, my elbow doesn’t bother me at all.  It hasn’t manifested as a lingering injury.  Maybe that means I did some things right?

Also, remember, preventing injury is one of the most important ways to maintain consistency on your BJJ journey.

Brian Springfield BJJ Back Of Gi

The Trauma Phase

Honestly, the first few days there wasn’t much I could do about my elbow injury.  It just hurt, and putting any pressure on it took my breath away.  Putting on shirts made me gasp, forgetfully pushing on a door would make me grit my teeth.

During the trauma phase, I followed the most universally known rule in sports medicince RICE

  • Rest – minimize use
  • Ice – 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off, repeat
  • Compress – wrap snugly, but don’t cut off blood flow
  • Elevate – keep injury above my heart

Rice You Are Doing It Wrong Meme - Elbow Injury Joke

During this time I also took lots of Advil to try to help with the swelling.  Over the years, Advil has tended to work best for me especially, for muscle pain so that is what I stuck with.  When my elbow injury happened, it strained where my forearm and bicep connect as well.  My bicep was especially angered.

I wore a good elbow brace most of the time for the first few days as well.  At work, I was constantly typing, carrying clipboards and paperwork around, and opening doors.  The brace helped me stay supported at work.  During the night, I rolled over on my arm in weird angles sleeping which woke me up, so I started wearing it set very loosely at night too.  Sleep was important to healing

The Trauma phase was the time I used to lament my stupidity, generally beat myself up, and worry.  For me it lasted a few days.  Once I felt like the pain, swelling, and lack of movement weren’t getting any worse it was time to move on to the next phase.

The Light Mobility Phase

Athletes around me who had suffered similar injuries had one piece of advice which I found invaluable.  Focus on maintaining mobility.  As my elbow heals over time, the muscles around it are naturally going to be staying tight to protect and armor it.  That tension, if not addressed will lead to lack of mobility.  A lack of mobility means that there is an increased chance of re-injuring it because of a decreased range of motion.

Core Concept: If I just let an injury heal without focusing on mobility and strengthening the supporting muscle groups, the chance of re-injury, pain, and discomfort are greater.

In this stage I found a fine balance between aggravating my elbow causing flair ups and improving mobility by pushing my boundaries.

Each elbow injury is surely different. Mine was caused by a very straight-on hyper-extension.  In my later research it seems, the more twisting during trauma, the worse.  I was lucky.

Facing an existential crisis about this injury I reframed my thinking about healing.  During caveman times, an injury like this was a disadvantage but would just be trusted to heal on its own.  Sitting around and doing nothing wouldn’t be a choice for the caveman.  My body is built to regenerate and heal, and the act of doing things can actually help it.

Core Concept: My body’s default mode is “healed.”  Whenever something happens to move me from this, my body begins working to get me back there.  The better support I supply it with, the better it can do its job.  Sleeping well, eating well, protecting it from additional trauma, while improving mobility and support all empower healing.

BJJ Flexibility

Range Of Motion

Because my elbow injury was directional, I focused on the two ranges of motion that matched up with the angle of trauma.  I wanted to make sure my arm could extend all the way straight, and I could use my fingers to touch my shoulder.

The muscular tightness of my bicep and tricep limited my motion.  I focused on relaxing and sometimes massaging out excessive tension.  Occasionally, I actually welcomed the tension to keep my elbow locked into acceptable positions as well.

For early mobility, I just moved my arm to the end of it’s own range of motion.  The first few days, that wasn’t much past the 90 degrees my arm was staying at.  I felt like there was something shifted and very uncomfortable.

Arm Extension Stretches For Elbow Injury

I would move my elbow to the end of my range of motion, never moving it to the point of pain.  Just the edge of where it would naturally rest.  For 10 -20 seconds I would maintain it in this position for a few repetitions.  This wasn’t a movement that anyone showed me, it was just the exact movement that was restricted after my injury, so that’s where I focused.

My mobility goal was to be able to extend my arm and touch my knee with my fingertips, and curl my arm and touch my shoulder with my finger tips.  I would progress back and fourth across both of these ranges of motion.  As my mobility grew, I also did some static stretches to keep my bicep and other arm muscles from shortening.Improving Elbow Mobility After An Injury

Core Concept: There is a limit to how much work I could do with my elbow in one sitting.  I focused on trying to revisit these regimens spaced throughout the day aiming for 4 – 5 times.  The caveman would have used the arm throughout the day.  Stimulating blood flow and firing the muscles around the injury seemed important.  I tried to activate mobility and healing spread out across the day.

How did I know when it was time to work on mobility again?  My elbow told me.  It started to get a little stiff and achy feeling.  After a bit of mobility, the dull ache was less noticeable.  Over time, I didn’t feel the discomfort inspired need for this mobility work as much, as it improved.  I made a point to still focus on it way after my body started aching less, knowing that the underlying fault still existed.

Guard Passing Brian Lowry

Increasing Mobility And Support Phase

As moving my arm became easier and the range of motion plateaued, I begin focusing on active resistance to improve mobility.  I mentioned earlier that muscle tension was a large obstacle to mobility.  One great way I knew of to relax tensed muscles was to flex them hard for a few seconds then release them.  A few repetitions usually helps immensely in calming down excess tension.

Isometric Arm Curls

I combined this with isometric curls.  Using my other arm to resist the curling motion helped keep my antagonistic muscles slightly engaged.  Initially, I was hardly providing any resistance at all.  Eventually I built up to using a few fingers from my left hand to slow the curling and extending of my right arm.  By the end I built up to regular seeming isometric resistance curls.

When I began doing these isometric curls and focused on stretching is when the fastest healing started to happen.  There were a few times where small shifts occurred.  Sometimes these made everything worse, but sometimes better.

Core Concept: The mental image I held, was that as I strengthen the muscles around the injury they will become strong enough to pull my elbow alignment into the correct placement and hold it there.

As my stabilizing muscles grew stronger I had a few shifts that seemed to make everything feel a lot better, but the relief didn’t seem to be long lasting.  The swelling seemed to be a limiting factor, and it wasn’t going anywhere it seemed.

The Phase Where I Finally Saw A Doctor

What if it never heals and I should have seen a doctor earlier?  What if there is severe damage?  Did I just take three weeks off of Jiu Jitsu to heal an injury that now is going to require surgery and months of recovery?

These thoughts drove me to get peace of mind, advice, and an X-Ray from a trained professional.

Core Concept: Seeing your doctor should be THE FIRST THING YOU DO if at all possible.  Don’t do what I did and wait weeks and weeks.  Browsing blogs and posting in forums are not a replacement for qualified medical advice.

The X-Ray came back OK, and when the anxiety over the scope of my injury faded, I realized I had been holding on to way to much nervousness to efficiently heal.  This is a huge reason to see a professional earlier, rather than later.

My doctor prescribed me “Naproxen.”  When I found out that was really just “Aleve” I was a little skeptical.  Advil had always worked for me.  A few weeks of taking Aleve lead to a noticeable reduction in my swelling though.  I continued the mobility regimens I had assigned myself and I started to feel like I actually would heal completely.

I know it sounds like an infomercial but I do think naproxen was a big part of my recovery.  Whenever I am dealing with muscle problems, I still take ibuprofen, but now when I have joint issues, naproxen seems to help much more.  (#MastersDivision)

First BJJ Class Back After Vacation Meme

Fully Healed

Maybe it was the Tincture Of Time as much as anything that lead to my healing.  Possibly the month I had waited to see the doctor just needed a few more weeks to finish the job.  I don’t think so though.

Years later, my elbow doesn’t give me any trouble.  I was worried that it would be a lingering injury that plagued me, but it isn’t.

If you are reading this because you’re recovering from an elbow injury, I hope your healing goes as smoothly as mine!

If I had it to do over again..

  • Don’t be a knuckle head in a triangle and get my elbow injured to begin with.  Tap.
  • See a doctor early in the process to get imaging done.  
  • I feel the mobility work that I did was directly responsible for my recovery and would definitely execute appropriate movements to improve mobility(prescribed my a physical therapist would be best).
  • Take naproxen earlier in the healing process to reduce swelling.
  • Take Great Lakes Gelatin Collagen powder (a product I found later really helps my joints recover)