Elbow Injuries and Causes of Discomfort

Common conditions and treatments

Photo of a PT helping elderly man with elbow pain.
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Elbow pain is an extremely common condition, and there are a number of different causes of this problem. It is important to make an accurate diagnosis of the cause of your elbow pain symptoms in order to ensure appropriate treatment is administered. If you have elbow pain, some of the more common causes include:

  • Lateral Epicondylitis
    • The most common cause of elbow pain is lateral epicondylitis, also called tennis elbow. Patients with lateral epicondylitis have pain over the outside of the joint and difficulty gripping objects. Interestingly, most patients with lateral epicondylitis are not tennis players.
  • Medial Epicondylitis
    • Similar to lateral epicondylitis, medial epicondylitis, or golfer's elbow, causes discomfort around the joint. However, the symptoms of medial epicondylitis are on the inner side of the joint. Again, most patients with this condition are not golfers.
  • Olecranon Bursitis
    • Bursitis is most common behind the elbow joint. When a patient has olecranon bursitis, they usually have swelling and tenderness behind the joint over the bony prominence called the olecranon. Infections of the bursa can complicate the treatment of olecranon bursitis.
  • Tendonitis
    • Tendonitis can occur in any of the tendons that surround the joint. The most common types of tendonitis that cause elbow pain are biceps tendonitis (in front of the joint) and triceps tendonitis (in the back of the joint).
  • Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
    • Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when there is compression of the ulnar nerve as it wraps around the inside of the joint causing elbow pain. Cubital tunnel syndrome can also cause shooting pains along the forearm and numbness and tingling of the fingers.
  • Radial Tunnel Syndrome
    • Radial tunnel syndrome is an uncommon condition that causes nerve compression of the radial nerve. Most often, this diagnosis is considered in patients who are thought to have lateral epicondylitis but do not improve.
  • Elbow Fractures
  • Elbow Dislocation
    • An elbow dislocation occurs when the upper arm and forearm get separated from their normal position. When this occurs, these bones of the elbow are separated from their normal alignment.

Getting Medical Help

If you are unsure of the cause of your elbow pain, or if you do not know the specific treatment recommendations for your condition, you should seek medical attention. Treatment of these conditions must be directed at the specific cause of your problem. Some signs that you should be seen by a doctor include:

  • Inability to carry objects or use the arm
  • Injury that causes deformity of the joint
  • Elbow pain that occurs at night or while resting
  • Elbow pain that persists without improvement
  • Inability to straighten or bend the arm
  • Swelling or significant bruising around the elbow
  • Signs of an infection, including fever, redness, warmth

Treatment Options

The treatment of elbow pain depends on the specific condition. Therefore, it is essential that the cause of your condition is understood before beginning any specific treatment plan.  If you have uncertainty on the cause of your symptoms, that is a sign you should be evaluated by a medical professional before beginning any planned treatment.

Not all treatments listed here are appropriate for every specific elbow condition, but this will inform you of the possible options:

  • Rest: The first treatment for many common conditions that cause elbow pain is to rest the joint, and allow the acute inflammation to subside. It is important, however, to use caution when resting the joint, because prolonged immobilization can cause a stiff joint.
  • Ice and Heat Application: Ice packs and heat pads are among the most commonly used treatments for elbow pain. So which one is the right one to use, ice or heat? And how long should the ice or heat treatments last?
  • Stretching: Stretching the muscles and tendons that surround the joint can help with some causes of elbow pain. A good routine should be established, and following some specific suggestions will help you on your way.
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy is an important aspect of treatment of almost all orthopedic conditions. Physical therapists use different modalities to increase strength, regain mobility, and help return patients to their pre-injury level of activity.
  • Anti-Inflammatory Medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications, commonly referred to as NSAIDs, are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, especially for patients with elbow pain caused by problems such as arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis.
  • Cortisone injections: Cortisone is a powerful medication that treats inflammation, and inflammation is a common problem in patients with elbow pain. Discuss with your doctor the possible benefits of a cortisone injection for your elbow pain condition.
  • Arthroscopic Elbow Surgery: Some causes of elbow pain require a surgical treatment for relief of symptoms. One surgical option is arthroscopic elbow surgery. While not useful for all causes of elbow pain, arthroscopic surgery is a treatment option for several common conditions.
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