Elbow stiffness is common with arthritis, following an injury, or if you have not been moving the elbow, for example if you have been in a sling for a prolonged period without exercising it.
Stiffness can be caused by the stiffening of soft tissues of the elbow, or from extra bone formation around the elbow as can occur with arthritis. It can also result if the joint surfaces, which are usually well aligned, become less well matched such as following an injury or from arthritis.
While stiffness often affects flexion (bending) as well as extension (straightening) of the elbow, usually it is one of these that someone finds particularly troublesome. For example a loss of flexion may make it difficult to bring your hand to your mouth to brush your teeth or to brush your hair.
Initially simply adapting the way you do things so that the stiffness does not hold you back can be sufficient. This can be through adjusting the way you perform certain activities, using the other arm, or using specific tools and implements to overcome the lack of elbow movement.
Some people find physiotherapy helpful, particularly if the stiffness is one of soft tissues which are able to be stretched, however in some cases pushing the elbow too much to try and regain movement may exacerbate the stiffness.
The most reliable way of improving your elbow movement will depend on which aspect of the movement is a problem. Surgery (either open or arthroscopic) can remove extra bone that has formed and can release soft tissues which have contracted and stiffened.
If the elbow was very stiff then often the ulnar nerve that passes around the elbow needs to be released at the same time so that the extra movement does not stretch the nerve. This can be discussed with your surgeon.
After surgery it is important to keep the elbow moving to maintain the gains in movement that were achieved at surgery.
Surgery usually provides a reliable increase in the range of movement in your elbow, however how much of this is maintained depends on you keeping the elbow moving after the surgery. If the stiffness has arisen as a result of arthritis of the elbow, the stiffness often gradually returns over the following years as the body produces extra bone again.