When I first started yoga, a common correction or verbal cue given to me was “do not lock your arms” and to “micro-bend”. At that time, I was confused and did not understand what that meant. Looking around the room, I thought I was doing the same pose as everyone else – I had my arms in the right place, shoulder-width apart, straightened to my maximum, why did I have to bend them when others don’t? Then one day, as I was pressing my weight onto a table, one of my friends was surprised at the angle of my elbow – that was when I realised I had hyperextended elbows. I also came to realise that it ran in the family, as my mom also had elbows that looked like mine.
Reading up a little, I learnt that hyperextended elbows is a form of hypermobility which is common and occurs in about 10% to 25% of the population, most of which live life as per normal with only a small minority who suffer from the pain and discomfort of hypermobility spectrum disorder or joint hypermobility syndrome. Luckily for me, my hyperextension in my elbow joints has not affected any part of my day-to-day routine. It did help me to finally realise why I had to micro-bend my elbows, and I would like that with you.
What is a hyperextended elbow?
First, let me give you a quick introduction of the elbow joint – it is a hinge synovial joint which connects the humerus in the upper arm to the ulna and radius in the forearm, and strengthened by ligaments and tendons. A usual extension of the elbow joint, or in other words when you straighten your arm, it should form a 180 degrees angle. A hyperextended elbow is one that forms an angle of more than 180 degrees.
What are the risks of hyperextension of the elbow joint?
Although there may not be effects felt day-to-day, the repeated overextension of the elbow joints (for example during yoga asanas) may lead to increased pressure on the joint, which may cause damage to the ligaments. In more serious cases, it could also lead to the dislocation of the elbow. Symptoms include pain, numbness in the arm, loss of arm strength or spasm of muscles.
How to avoid hyperextending the elbow in yoga practice?
- Avoid locking the arms – locking the arms, especially in a weight bearing pose, puts weight into the joints and bones without engaging the muscles.
- Micro-bend the elbows – this means to keep a slight bent in the elbows, which would naturally correct the extension angle to be at or within 180 degrees.
- Think about alignment – for example poses that require your palm to be stacked under the shoulder (such as plank, tabletop), think about keeping your elbows stacked in that same line.
- Stop when you feel any discomfort – if you feel any pain in any of the poses, please stop immediately as you may be putting your elbow in a compromising position which puts it at risk of being injured.
- Strengthen muscles around the joints – always remember to come into any yoga pose with intention, and engage all the surrounding muscles to complete the pose.
Examples of hyperextended elbows in yoga practice
Here are two examples of how a hyperextended elbow may look like in yoga poses, together with the correct alignment. As a yogi, it is important to be able to identify the mistakes in your yoga asanas to be able to correct yourself and improve. Similarly, for yoga teachers it is important to know not just the theory, but how it looks like so that you can look out for students who attend your class and make the necessary corrections.
Tabletop Pose (Bharmanasana)
In the left image, the arms are locked, and elbows hyperextended – this will potentially injure the elbows as the bodyweight presses down into the palms at a weird angle. Instead, you should try to micro-bend the arms and keep them stacked in a straight line 180 degrees, from the shoulders to the elbows to the palms, like the right image.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
In the left image, the elbows are extended beyond 180 degrees and locked in place, potentially wearing out as it appears to be bearing the body weight. Instead, you should keep the elbows bent, pull the shoulders away from the ears, and shine the chest forward.
With all that is shared, if you are like me with hyperextended elbows, we do have to be very conscious and intentional when practicing yoga asanas. Over time, your body will remember the correct poses and it would be more effortless. In the meantime, please take care and be kind to your joints!