Elbow Arthritis Treatment and Symptoms

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Elbow arthritis is relatively uncommon compared to arthritis of other joints in the body including the hands, hips, and knees. That said, some people suffer from symptoms of painful arthritis symptoms and require treatment for this condition. Problems with the elbow joint can cause significant pain and disability. However, there are effective treatments for arthritis of the elbow joint.

Types of Elbow Arthritis

The first step in the treatment of elbow arthritis is to determine the cause of symptoms. Unlike some joints where osteoarthritis is by far the most common type of arthritis, elbow joints are commonly affected by some other conditions. The most common types of arthritis found in the elbow joint include:

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
    • Rheumatoid arthritis affects the elbow commonly. This can be painful, and often affects both elbows causing functional limitations for the patient. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis commonly have pain, swelling, and instability of the elbow joint.
  • Osteoarthritis
    • Osteoarthritis of the elbow is relatively uncommon and mostly occurs in men with a history of significant heavy labor activity or sports participation. The most common complaint of these patients is restricted mobility, particularly with challenges fully straightening the elbow.
  • Post-Traumatic Arthritis
    • Post-traumatic arthritis of the elbow typically occurs after elbow fractures and/or elbow dislocations. When the elbow cartilage is damaged, progressive arthritis often develops.

Signs of Elbow Arthritis

The most common symptom of elbow arthritis is the pain, although restrictions in mobility and limited ability to perform upper extremity activities are also common. Patients can typically tolerate mild symptoms of arthritis, as upper extremity joint problems are better tolerated (you don't have to walk with your arms), and most elbow activities don't require people to have full range of motion.

The most common signs of elbow arthritis include:

  • Pain in the elbow
  • Limited range-of-motion/stiffness
  • Swelling of the elbow
  • Grinding sensations of the elbow
  • Instability of the elbow joint

Treatment for Elbow Arthritis

Possible treatments of elbow arthritis range from simple to invasive. Most patients try simple treatments first and only proceed to more invasive treatments if the simple measures do not provide adequate relief.

Some of the more common treatments for elbow arthritis include:

  • Oral anti-inflammatory medications
  • Activity modifications
  • Ice and heat application
  • Alternative treatments

If these simpler treatments are not effective, a cortisone injection is often helpful in relieving symptoms, at least temporarily.

Elbow arthroscopy is being used with increasing frequency as more surgeons are becoming comfortable with this technique. This surgery is often useful as your surgeon can remove inflamed tissue from the joint, clean out any loose cartilage, and shave bone spurs from the joint. Arthroscopic surgery is most useful for patients with moderate elbow arthritis, as more severe arthritis may not respond to a minimally invasive treatment.

If the joint damage is too severe, a replacement of the joint may become necessary. In young patients, a procedure called an interposition arthroplasty is often considered. In this surgery, soft-tissue is transferred from elsewhere in the body to the elbow joint to provide a cushion between the bones. This type of surgery is favored over metal and plastic implants that may wear out in young patients.

Elbow replacement surgery is a more common treatment for older patients who place less demand on their joints. Joint replacements of the elbow are not designed to withstand significant forces and can have problems if too much stress is placed on the implanted joint. 

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