If you’ve ever hit a funny bone, you know that elbow pain can be frustrating. However, because different muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones are involved in the elbow, it can be difficult to figure out the exact cause of elbow pain.
The elbow is the joint that connects the upper and lower arms. While numerous tendons and muscles help stabilize and protect your elbow, both the ulnar and radial collateral ligaments are particularly important parts of your anatomy.
You may experience elbow pain if you have damaged one of the ligaments or damaged the cartilage in the elbow joint.
While people may benefit from learning more about the underlying causes of elbow pain, they should avoid diagnosing it themselves.
Instead, this article serves as a guide so you can better describe your pain to your healthcare provider.
Many people experience pain in one elbow, especially if they have been injured in an accident or have overexerted their elbow while exercising.
Olecranon bursitis is another condition that often affects the elbow.
However, some people may experience pain in their elbows. Several conditions, including but not limited to tendinitis and arthritis, can cause pain in one or both elbows.
Tendonitis is a painful condition that occurs when your tendons (the tissues that connect muscles to bones) become inflamed. Although tendinitis can cause pain in the elbow or the entire arm, the condition is usually temporary.
People can develop tendonitis after they overwork their elbows by mopping the floor with their hands, playing tennis, or doing other tasks that move the elbows repeatedly. Some activities may cause elbow inflammation.
If you have tendonitis, you may feel relief when you rest your arm. If your symptoms do not go away after a few days of home care, consider visiting a healthcare provider.
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Unlike tendinitis, arthritis is a chronic disease. However, there are different types of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks your joints.
This condition can cause swelling, pain, and stiffness in the elbow.
RA usually affects the joints symmetrically, so if you have symptoms in one elbow, you will also have symptoms in the other elbow. It often affects one or both elbows, in 20% to 65% of cases.
In your elbow, there are soft tissues that help cushion and protect your bones. These tissues often act as shock absorbers, allowing your joints to move without the bones rubbing painfully against each other.
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, the synovium swells and thickens. Your elbow may have less range of motion.
You may also experience throbbing, pain, or radiating pain, especially if you wake up in the morning or if you haven’t moved your arm for a long time.
While there is no cure for RA, your healthcare provider may prescribe immunosuppressants or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Some people with mild to moderate elbow pain may use heat or ice packs to reduce the inflammation caused by their RA symptoms.
Understanding Rheumatoid Arthritis
Osteoarthritis is another common culprit of chronic elbow pain. It tends to affect one joint first, but the other elbow may also develop it.
Unfortunately, osteoarthritis is a chronic disease and, like RA, there is no cure. However, there are several options to reduce pain and prevent further damage to the joint.
If you have osteoarthritis in your elbow, the soft tissue between the bones has started to erode. As we age, repeated movement and stress on the joints can eventually wear down the cartilage in the elbow. Without these soft tissues to support your elbow, you may experience stiffness or pain in your arm.
While you may not be able to rebuild or replace the lost tissue in your elbow, you can wear an elbow brace and perform low-impact activities to protect the remaining cartilage.
Osteoarthritis: Wear and tear of articular cartilage
When to see a healthcare provider
If you are in pain, you may be wondering when you should consult a healthcare provider. Any pain that disrupts your life is a potential cause of medical problems that may require a visit from a healthcare provider.
Otherwise, you should seek medical advice if your elbow pain does not improve after treatment at home and a few days of rest.
If your accident or injury caused sudden or severe pain in your elbow, consider visiting your healthcare provider. Your elbow may be dislocated or fractured, and a healthcare provider can determine the severity of your injury.
Also, if you’ve already been diagnosed with arthritis but are experiencing new, different, or worsening elbow pain, you may consider visiting your healthcare provider to manage your changing symptoms.
Your GP or specialist (such as a rheumatologist) may use several different methods to diagnose the cause of elbow pain.
A physical exam can help your healthcare provider understand exactly where and why your injury is.
Your healthcare provider may feel and move your elbow and rotate your arm to pinpoint swelling, irritation, or potential injury.
They may ask you to raise your arms, bend your elbows, or clench your fists to see your range of motion.
X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show your healthcare provider the condition of your arm bones, so these imaging tests are especially useful in analyzing whether bone problems may be causing your elbow pain.
Imaging tests can reveal advanced osteoarthritis or fractures.
After the physical exam, your healthcare provider may decide that laboratory tests will be useful. Blood tests can help identify RA or other autoimmune diseases, infections, cancer, or other conditions that can cause elbow pain.
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) are common medications for elbow pain relief. Applying cold or warm compresses to the elbow may help reduce swelling.
If you have advanced arthritis or a severe elbow injury, your healthcare provider may recommend opioids, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone. Opioids should only be used as prescribed due to the risk of addiction.
If an injury or overwork causes elbow pain, you may need to rest and wear an exercise brace for extra support.
However, if you have arthritis, your healthcare provider may encourage you to do more exercise to keep your joints loose and flexible, which can help you move your arms more easily in the future.
If rheumatoid arthritis is the cause of elbow pain, treatment usually includes immunosuppressants or DMARDs.
Some patients use alternative treatments such as acupuncture to supplement their normal medical procedures.
While some studies have shown positive outcomes for people with arthritis who receive regular acupuncture treatments, especially electroacupuncture, these treatments are not meant to replace your healthcare provider’s advice or your prescription medications.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to coping, many find strategies that provide some relief include gentle exercise (yoga, swimming, stretching), heat or ice packs, and over-the-counter pain relievers.
Lifting light weights can help strengthen your arm muscles, which can protect you from future elbow strains.
Consult with your healthcare provider to determine the medical plan that is right for your specific needs.
Use These Treatments for People with Elbow Arthritis
Our elbows help us do important things like pick up a child or grandchild, wave to a neighbor, catch a ball, close a door, or cook our favorite recipes.
When you hurt your elbow, you can get frustrated if you can’t do many of these everyday tasks without discomfort.
While there are several potential causes of your elbow pain, such as tendonitis or arthritis, your healthcare provider can help you determine the cause of your pain.
Once you’ve been diagnosed, you can work with your healthcare provider to start managing your elbow pain routinely.