Overview of Elbow Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis can affect joints in any part of the body, including the elbow. Early diagnosis and treatment help people with elbow osteoarthritis manage their symptoms.

Man assisting tennis player who has elbow pain
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Cause of Elbow Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease. Over time, cartilage — a tough but flexible tissue that covers the ends of the bones forming a joint — wears away gradually. Elbow osteoarthritis can also be caused by the previous injury, such as elbow fracture or dislocation. Injury can cause cartilage damage, or it can change the mechanics of how the elbow works, causing it to wear out.

Three bones form the elbow joint — the humerus bone of the upper arm, and the ulna and radius bones of the forearm. The ulna and humerus meet at the elbow to form a hinge joint. The elbow is actually among the joints that are least affected by osteoarthritis — a disease that most commonly affects weight-bearing joints, such as the knee and hip.

Diagnosis of Elbow Osteoarthritis

The diagnosis of elbow osteoarthritis is usually based on a patient's medical history (i.e., previous injury to the elbow, work that caused repetitive stress to the elbow joint), a physical examination to determine what specific movement causes pain and x-rays that show arthritic changes. Usually, that is enough to formulate the diagnosis and more sophisticated imaging studies are not needed.

Elbow osteoarthritis that is not caused by the previous injury is more common in men than women. Patients affected by elbow osteoarthritis are typically over 50 years old, but it is possible to develop the condition at a younger age.

Symptoms of Elbow Osteoarthritis

The most common symptoms associated with elbow osteoarthritis include pain and decreased the range of motion. Other symptoms that can occur with elbow osteoarthritis include:

  • A grating feeling, due to cartilage damage
  • Locking of the elbow joint, due to loose cartilage or bone fragments
  • Swelling at the elbow as the disease progresses
  • Tingling, caused by the pressure put on the ulnar nerve as the result of swelling

Treatment of Elbow Osteoarthritis

With early symptoms of elbow osteoarthritis, treatment is usually nonsurgical. Oral medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and pain relievers are usually prescribed. Physical therapy to improve range of motion may be recommended. Corticosteroid injections are often used to decrease pain and inflammation in the elbow.

Surgical procedures that are used to treat elbow osteoarthritis after nonsurgical options have failed may include:

  • Arthroscopic debridement: arthroscopy to smooth the joint surface and remove loose bodies or bone spurs
  • Interposition arthroplasty: placing a tendon or fascia between the ends of the bones in the joint
  • Joint replacement: for patients with severe elbow osteoarthritis who need an improved range of motion more than improved strength
  • Elbow fusion: for patients who need pain relief and are willing to sacrifice range of motion
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By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer who covers arthritis and chronic illness. She is the author of "The Everything Health Guide to Arthritis."