Elbow Pain Causes and Treatment Options

Elbow pain can range from the burning pain of an inflamed tendon to the sharp pain of a broken elbow. It can come and go. Or it gets worse when you move your arms. Sometimes the pain is accompanied by numbness and tingling in the hand.

Elbow pain can have many different causes. That’s why it’s important to have your healthcare provider do a full evaluation. An accurate diagnosis is the key to a proper treatment plan.

This article explores several common causes of elbow pain. It outlines treatment options and gives you some guidelines on when to see a healthcare provider.


Here are some common causes of elbow pain. Many are related to repetitive activities and injuries.

Lateral epicondylitis

Lateral epicondylitis Also known as tennis elbow, it is the most common cause of elbow pain. This happens when the tendon that connects the elbow bone to the forearm muscle becomes inflamed.

People who repeatedly move their forearm muscles in the same way are prone to this condition. This usually includes tennis players, weight lifters, painters and plumbers.

Pain develops gradually. When you use your forearm extensors, it has a burning quality and gets worse. They are five muscles that also help you straighten your elbows. Activities such as turning a wrench, mixing dough, or swinging a tennis racket can trigger this pain. It makes grabbing objects more difficult.

medial epicondylitis

This condition is sometimes called golfer’s elbow. medial epicondylitis Cause pain near the joints. However, the pain is on the inside of the elbow.

The cause is inflammation of the tendon that connects the elbow bone to the muscles used to flex the wrist and fingers. This happens when you grip objects like golf clubs, rackets, or heavy tools too hard over and over.

The condition also weakens the muscles in the forearm.

olecranon bursitis

This olecranon It is a fluid-filled sac between the tip of the elbow bone and the skin. Olecranon bursitis causes swelling and tenderness behind the joint. If the area is inflated enough, you may not be able to fully move the elbow.

This can come on suddenly due to gout, infection, or trauma to the elbow. With an infected bursa, the tip of the elbow can be red and warm. Some people also have a fever.

This condition also increases over time, usually due to overuse or chronic stress on the elbow. It is sometimes associated with inflammatory arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis.

Biceps and Triceps Tendonitis

The biceps tendon is a tough, fibrous tissue that connects the biceps muscle to the front of the elbow bone. The triceps tendon connects the triceps to the back of the elbow bone.

Biceps tendonitis is usually caused by repeated use of the biceps. Lifting boxes is an example. It can cause pain in the front of the elbow. Triceps tendinitis can cause pain in the back of the elbow. This happens when people stretch their elbows with resistance over and over. Weightlifters are vulnerable to this injury.

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If the biceps or triceps tendon ruptures, there is a sudden sharp pain and a snapping or popping sensation. Elbows and forearms may be bruised or swollen. You may even see a lump in your upper arm.

cubital tunnel syndrome

Your ulnar nerve runs from your neck to your hand. Sometimes, as the nerve wraps around the inside of the elbow, it gets pinched. This condition is called cubital tunnel syndrome.

Cubital tunnel syndrome often causes pain on the inside of the elbow. You may also experience numbness and tingling in your fifth (“pink”) and fourth (“nameless”) fingers. Some people have a weak forearm grip and have shooting pains.

radial tunnel syndrome

Radial tunnel syndrome is uncommon. It occurs when the radial nerve is compressed.

The radial nerve travels down the arm. It controls the triceps on the back of the upper arm and the wrist extensors on the forearm. This condition is a risk for people who repeatedly rotate their forearms, such as carpenters and mechanics.

Radial tunnel syndrome causes blurry pain that comes on gradually. You may also notice numbness in the back of your hand and forearm.

elbow fracture

If you fall on your elbow or hand or get a blow to your elbow, you may break a bone.

The most common elbow fractures are olecranon and radial head fractures. Symptoms may include:

  • Sudden, severe pain in the elbow and forearm
  • swelling
  • Numbness and tingling in the hand
  • inability to straighten arm

Elbow dislocation

Elbow dislocations are uncommon. This can happen if you fall on the palm of your hand. When the hand touches the ground, the force can twist the elbow out of its socket. In other words, the bones of the elbow are separated.

Dislocations often cause:

  • Elbow deformity
  • swelling
  • Blood stasis
  • Numbness and tingling in the hand


Inflamed tendons, compressed nerves, fractures, and dislocations can all cause elbow pain. Pain can be gradual or sudden. Sometimes elbow pain is accompanied by numbness, tingling, swelling, or bruising, depending on the cause.

When to see a healthcare provider

If your elbow pain is severe or does not go away, be sure to see a healthcare provider. Other signs that you need medical attention include:

  • Inability to carry items or use arms
  • Injuries that change the shape of a joint
  • Elbow pain at night or at rest
  • inability to straighten or bend the arm
  • swollen or bruised elbow
  • signs of infection, including fever, redness, and warmth


To diagnose the problem, a healthcare provider will usually examine your arm and elbow. They may also ask about your medical history.

medical history

Before examining your elbow, your healthcare provider will ask questions to better understand your pain. Frequently asked questions include:

  • When did the pain start?
  • What sports or work activities do you engage in?
  • Have you had a fall or injury to your elbow?
  • Do you have other symptoms such as tingling, swelling or fever?

Questions about symptoms can help pinpoint the cause. For example, tingling can sometimes mean a nerve is involved. Swelling suggests inflammation. A fever is a sign of infection.

physical examination

During your physical exam, your healthcare provider will check your elbows and arms for bruising, swelling, redness, or changes in shape. You may need to move your arm so your healthcare provider can understand what’s causing the pain and how much range of motion you have.

Your healthcare provider will also do a brief neurological exam of the arm and hand. This checks for numbness and muscle weakness.

imaging test

You may need imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis of elbow pain. For example, X-rays are needed to diagnose elbow fractures or dislocations. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be ordered to get a clear picture of the biceps tendon, especially if the tendon ruptures.


Your treatment depends on the diagnosis. This is why it is crucial to understand the causes of pain before starting any treatment.

Self-Care Strategies

Fractures and dislocations cannot be managed on their own. Many other conditions can be treated with simple self-care strategies. There are many ways you can take an active role in elbow health.


The first treatment for many common elbow conditions is to rest the joint. Rest allows the inflammation to subside. Just be careful you don’t take it too long. Some movement may be required to avoid joint stiffness.

Avoid activities that trigger or aggravate elbow pain. Repetitive movements, excessive stress, prolonged periods of time, and heavy lifting can make some conditions worse.


Ice packs are often used to treat elbow pain, especially epicondylitis and olecranon bursitis. It is most helpful in the early stages.

Apply ice to your elbow for 15 to 20 minutes, 3 times a day. It is also a good idea to apply ice to the elbow for 15 minutes after actively using the arm. Remember to put a towel between the ice pack and your skin.


Stretching the muscles and tendons around the elbow joint can prevent stiffness and improve flexibility. You may want to work with a physical or occupational therapist to learn the correct stretch for your situation. Once you know the most effective stretches, you can use them yourself.

wearing braces or elbow pads

For lateral or medial epicondylitis, your healthcare provider may recommend a reaction brace. This is an elastic band that is worn an inch or two below the elbow. The brace puts pressure on the forearm muscles to reduce tension on the tendon.

At first, you can wear the brace all the time. Once the pain is relieved, you will wear it during activities that put pressure on your arm.

An elbow pad can be used to treat olecranon or cubital tunnel syndrome. They prevent stress from being put on the joints. A splint that keeps the elbow straight at night may help with cubital tunnel syndrome.


Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) pain relievers are commonly used to treat pain. They are commonly used for arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis.

Cortisone injection can also treat inflammation. For example, cortisone is sometimes injected into the biceps tendon to relieve pain and swelling. It can also be used for other bursitis that do not improve after three to six weeks of treatment.

physical therapy

Physical therapy is an important part of the treatment plan for most orthopedic conditions. It usually begins immediately after acute pain relief.

Physical therapists use different modalities to increase strength and mobility and help patients return to normal activity levels. In addition to strengthening the forearm muscles, physical therapy can also help prevent future injury or pain.


Some causes of elbow pain require surgery. Elbow fractures, dislocations, cubital tunnel syndrome, and medial epicondylitis are sometimes treated with open conventional surgery.

For other conditions, such as lateral epicondylitis and elbow arthritis, arthroscopic elbow surgery is a better option.


Elbow pain can have a variety of causes and usually involves inflammation. The tendons near the joint and the fluid-filled bursa in the joint can become inflamed from overuse or a medical condition. A broken or dislocated elbow can also cause pain.

To find out why, your doctor will examine your arm to see how it moves and if you have other symptoms. You may be asked about any activity or trauma that may have caused the pain.

Treatment can include rest, ice, braces or splints, pain medication, physical therapy, or surgery. Your treatment plan will be tailored to your needs.

VigorTip words

The elbow joint is a complex structure, which is why there are so many possible culprits behind your pain. While it may involve your “fun bones,” elbow pain won’t make you laugh.

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have elbow pain. A solid diagnosis can help you feel confident that you and your elbow will return to normal with proper care and a good plan in place.