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Heard of shin splints? Not fun.
Well, you can get them in your arm, too. They happen when joints, tendons, or other connective tissues in your forearm get sprained or strained from overuse.
Forearm splints can even make your bones feels tender. And if you’re a gymnast, bodybuilder, weightlifter, or baseball player, you may be all too familiar with forearm splints.
We’ll walk you through exactly how to recognize when you have one, what you might be doing that’s causing them, and how to treat them.
The term “splint” refers to a few different symptoms that characterize this kind of injury. You’ll feel one or more of these symptoms from your wrist down towards your elbow:
- pain in your forearm, especially when you try to use it during exercise or daily tasks; this can range from a mild, intermittent ache to constant, throbbing pain
- tenderness when you touch your forearm
- redness and swelling along the length of your forearm
Some other symptoms you might experience depending on the severity of the splint include:
- losing strength in your arm
- having trouble lifting or putting weight on your forearm, wrist, or elbow
- forearm stiffness that feels worse after you’ve slept
- a feeling of heat from your forearm
- forearm lumps where muscle is inflamed
- having trouble gripping objects
- an uncomfortable sensation of grating when you move your forearm muscles
- numbness in the wrist, hands, fingers, or elbow
- an intense burning sensation, especially when you try to engage your forearm muscles
Forearm splints are common if you use your upper arms often for manual labor or working out.
Forearm splints are also commonly caused when:
- Bones in your arm get stress fractures. These fractures are caused by stress from repetitive motion or heavy use for an extended period of time.
- Arm joint tendons get injured or inflamed. Tissue bands connect your bones to your muscles so that they can move, stretch, and flex. Tendons can get inflamed from injury or overuse, which causes tendinitis.
- Your elbow joint gets overstretched. Torn tendons and ligaments are known as a sprain. Sprains can be mild and only result in partial tears, but severe sprains can cause you to lose movement in your arm.
The most effective treatment for forearm splints is the RICE method:
Give your forearm a break. You probably use it in more ways than you realize, whether it’s for daily activities such as lifting heavy objects (think a backpack, briefcase, or even a pet) or participating in any sport that requires use of your arms. Even moving your fingers can engage some of your forearm muscles.
Try an elbow brace, a wrist brace, a forearm splint, or an elbow wrap to help keep you from being able to fully move your forearm and the surrounding muscles. This can help take strain off your muscles and allow the area to recovery more quickly.
Wrap an ice pack (or even a frozen bag of vegetables) in a clean, damp towel and press it gently against your forearm for about 10 minutes at a time a few times per day. Do this right before you go to bed or right when you wake up.
This process helps the most after you’ve used your forearm extensively or haven’t used it in a while.
Try a compression sleeve or wrap to help relieve some of your symptoms. You may only need to wear a wrap for a few hours at a time if your symptoms aren’t severe. Others may be worn all day for a few days or weeks until your forearm starts to heal. You’ll take it off only when you shower or sleep.
Lift your forearm above your chest level to reduce swelling. Try propping your arm up on a pillow or other tall objects while you’re sitting or lying down. A sling can also promote healing while you’re upright.
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Some over-the-counter (OTC) medications for pain and inflammation may also reduce your symptoms:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil)
- lotions, ointments, or sprays containing numbing substances like lidocaine
- pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)
A tissue massage can also help relieve some of the pain and inflammation in your forearm.
See your doctor if your forearm pain interferes with your daily life or you can’t use the muscles without causing yourself extreme pain.
First, your doctor will ask you several questions about your symptoms, such as:
- When did you first notice your symptoms?
- Are there any activities that reduce the pain or cause more pain?
Then, your doctor will also examine your medical records and do a full physical examination to rule out any other underlying causes.
Your doctor may also order imaging tests if they believe that you have tendinitis or a tear in a tendon or muscle. Tests your doctor may request include:
- X-ray uses electromagnetic radiation to create two-dimensional, black-and-white images of your arm that let your doctor look at details of your arm bones, joints, and muscle.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): uses radio and magnetic waves to create detailed images of your tissues, including muscles, bones, and joints.
- Ultrasound uses sound waves and an electronic transducer to look at your arm tissues in real time.
These tests provide your doctor with visual confirmation of their diagnosis in combination with your external symptoms.
Recovery time depends on how severe the cause is and how soon you get it treated. The amount you allow your muscles to rest can also impact how quickly you recover.
Here are some recovery times you can expect:
- Tendinitis. Mild tendinitis may feel better after a few days. More severe tendinitis can last two to eight weeks before you have full use of your arm again.
- Stress fractures. These fractures take about six to eight weeks to fully heal. You may not be able to fully use your arm for a few months if your symptoms are severe or you need surgery.
- Muscle or tendon tear. You may need to wait several weeks to recover. If you get surgery, you may not fully heal for about three months.
- Sprained elbow joint. Mild sprains may feel better in a few days. Severe sprain can take a few months for full recovery.
Avoid doing too many reps of exercises or activities that focus your forearm muscles, such as bicep curls, and lifting weights or heavy objects.
If you spend long periods in the gym focusing specifically on arm muscle development, give yourself a break between reps to allow your forearm muscles and tendons to relax before doing another rep. And take a break between arm days to let your muscles rest.
Try some of the following stretches to help treat your inflammation and make your forearm muscles and tendons stronger so that you can prevent forearm splints in the future:
Massage balls or foam roller
- Place your forearm on the surface of a foam roller and move your forearm slowly back and forth across the foam roller. Push down to apply pressure, but not so much that it causes you pain or discomfort.
- When you find an area that feels painful or uncomfortable, focus the roller on that spot and increase the amount of pressure you apply.
- Hold the foam roller on this spot for 15–30 seconds at a time.
- Once you’re done with the spot, keep moving your arm across the roller along the entire length of your forearm.
- Hold your arm out straight with your fingers and palm facing the ground.
- Use your other hand to slowly pull your hand back toward you. Don’t proceed if doing this results in sharp or unbearable pain.
- Keep your hand pulled back for about 15 to 30 seconds.
Tennis ball squeeze
- Hold a tennis ball.
- Squeeze it and hold the squeezing position for a few seconds. Stop squeezing if you feel too much pain or discomfort.
- Do as many reps as you feel comfortable with. Add more as you gain strength.
Forearm splints are caused by overuse of the tendons, joints, and tissues in your forearm. Bodybuilders and certain athletes are more likely to experience forearm splints.
The good news is you can treat the pain at home with rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If that doesn’t work, talk with your doctor to see if the injury is more severe.