Causes of Elbow Pain and Treatment Options

Everything you need to know about elbow pain

Elbow pain can range from the burning that comes with an inflamed tendon to the sharp pain of an elbow fracture. It can come and go. Or it can get steadily worse as you move your arm. Sometimes, the pain is paired with numbness and tingling in the hand.

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

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

Causes of elbow pain

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Causes

Here's a look at some common causes of elbow pain. Many are related to repetitive activities and injuries.

Lateral Epicondylitis

Lateral epicondylitis is also called tennis elbow, the most common cause of elbow pain. It happens when the tendon that attaches the elbow bone to the forearm muscles becomes inflamed.

People who move their forearm muscles over and over in the same way are prone to this condition. That often includes tennis players, weightlifters, painters, and plumbers.

The pain comes on gradually. It has a burning quality and gets worse when you use your forearm extensor muscles. They are the five muscles that also help you straighten your elbow. Activities like turning a wrench, mixing dough, or swinging a tennis racquet prompt this kind of pain. It can make gripping objects harder.

Medial Epicondylitis

This condition is sometimes called golfer's elbow. Medial epicondylitis causes pain near the joint. However, the pain is on the inner side 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. It happens when you use force to grip an object such as a golf club, racquet, or heavy tool over and over again.

This condition can also weaken the muscles in your forearm.

Olecranon Bursitis

The olecranon bursa 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 swells enough, you might not be able to move your elbow fully.

This condition can come on suddenly as a result of gout, infection, or elbow trauma. With an infected bursa, redness and warmth build up at the tip of the elbow. Some people have a fever, too.

The condition can also increase over time, often due to overuse or long-term pressure on the elbow. Sometimes it's related to inflammatory kinds of 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 muscle to the back of the elbow bone.

Biceps tendonitis is often caused by repetitive biceps muscle use. Lifting heavy boxes is one example. It causes an aching pain in front of the elbow. Triceps tendonitis causes an aching pain at the back of the elbow. It happens when people extend their elbow with resistance over and over again. Weightlifters are prone to this type of injury.

If a biceps or triceps tendon ruptures, there's a sudden, severe pain and a snapping or popping feeling. The elbow and forearm may bruise or swell. You may even see a lump on the upper arm.

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

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

Cubital tunnel syndrome often causes an aching pain on the inside of the elbow. You may also have numbness and tingling of the fifth ("pinky") and fourth ("ring") fingers. Some people have a weak grip and shooting pains along the forearm.

Radial Tunnel Syndrome

Radial tunnel syndrome isn't very common. It happens when the radial nerve is compressed.

The radial nerve travels down the arm. It controls the triceps muscle at the back of the upper arm and the wrist extensor muscles in the forearm. This condition is a risk for people who rotate their forearm over and over again, like carpenters and mechanics.

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

Elbow Fractures

If you fall on your elbow or hand or receive a blow to your elbow, you can break the bone.

The most common elbow fractures are olecranon fractures 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 the arm

Elbow Dislocation

An elbow dislocation is not common. It can happen if you fall onto the palm of your hand. When the hand hits the ground, the force can twist the elbow out of its socket. In other words, the bones of the elbow separate.

Dislocation often causes:

  • Elbow deformity
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Numbness and tingling of the hand

Recap

Inflamed tendons, compressed nerves, fractures, and dislocations can all cause elbow pain. The pain can be gradual or sudden. Sometimes elbow pain comes with 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, it's important to see a healthcare provider. Other signs that you need medical care include:

  • Inability to carry things or use your arm
  • An injury that changes the shape of the joint
  • Elbow pain at night or at rest
  • Inability to straighten or bend the arm
  • Swelling or bruising around the elbow
  • Signs of infection, including fever, redness, and warmth

Diagnosis

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 get a better understanding of your pain. Common questions include:

  • When did the pain start?
  • What kind of sports or job activities do you do?
  • Have you had any falls or trauma to your elbow?
  • Are you having other symptoms such as tingling, swelling, or fever?

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

Physical Examination

During the physical exam, your healthcare provider will check your elbow and arm for bruising, swelling, redness, or shape changes. You may need to move your arm so your healthcare provider can see what causes pain and how limited your range of motion is.

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

Imaging Tests

You may need imaging tests to confirm a diagnosis for your elbow pain. For example, an X-ray is needed to diagnose an elbow fracture or dislocation. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be ordered to get a clear picture of the bicep tendon, especially if there could be a tendon rupture.

Treatment

Your treatment depends on the diagnosis. That's why it's essential to know the cause of the pain before beginning any treatment.

Self-Care Strategies

Fractures and dislocations can't be managed on your own. Many other conditions can be treated with simple self-care strategies. There are lots of ways for you to take an active role in your elbow joint health.

Rest

The first treatment for many common elbow conditions is to rest the joint. Rest allows inflammation to subside. Just be careful that you're not too still for too long. Some movement may be needed to avoid a stiff joint.

Avoid activities that trigger or worsen your elbow pain. Repetitive movements, too much pressure for too long, and heavy lifting can make some conditions worse.

Ice

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, three times daily. It's also a good idea to apply ice to your elbow for 15 minutes after actively using your arm. Remember to place a towel between the ice pack and your skin.

Stretching

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 way to stretch given your condition. Once you know the most effective stretches, you can use them on your own.

Wearing a Brace or Elbow Pads

For lateral or medial epicondylitis, your healthcare provider may recommend a counter-force brace. It's an elastic strap worn an inch or two below your elbow. The brace puts pressure on the forearm muscles to lower tension on the tendon.

At first, you may wear the brace all the time. Once the pain eases, you'll wear it during activities that stress the arm.

Elbow pads may be used to treat olecranon bursa or cubital tunnel syndrome. They keep stress from being placed on the joint. A splint that keeps the elbow straight at night may help cubital tunnel syndrome.

Medications

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) pain medications are often used to treat pain. They're commonly prescribed for arthritis, bursitis, and tendonitis.

A cortisone injection can also treat inflammation. For instance, cortisone is sometimes injected into the biceps tendon to ease pain and swelling. It may also be used for bursitis that does not improve after three to six weeks of other treatments.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is an important part of the treatment plan for most orthopedic conditions. It usually starts as soon as the acute pain eases.

Physical therapists use different modalities to build strength and mobility and help patients get back to their normal activity level. In addition to strengthening the forearm muscles, physical therapy can help prevent future injury or pain.

Surgery

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

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

Summary

Elbow pain can have a number of causes and inflammation is often involved. The tendons near the joint and the fluid-filled bursa in the joint can be inflamed by overuse or a health condition. Fracturing or dislocating your elbow can also cause pain.

To find the cause, your doctor will examine your arm to see how it moves and if there are other symptoms. You'll probably be asked about any activities or traumas that may have led to the pain.

Treatments can include rest, ice, braces or splints, pain medications, physical therapy, or surgery. Your treatment plan will be adapted to your needs.

A Word From Verywell

The elbow joint is a complex structure, which is why there are so many possible culprits behind your pain. While it may involve your "funny bone," elbow pain won't make you laugh.

If you have elbow pain, see your healthcare provider. A solid diagnosis can help you feel confident that you and your elbow will be back in the swing of things with proper care and a good plan in place.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are common causes of elbow pain?

    Overuse and wear-and-tear injuries are the most common causes of elbow pain. Bursitis, tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, a compressed nerve, and tendonitis are the most common causes of elbow pain.  

  • What does elbow tendonitis feel like?

    Tendonitis in the elbow causes an aching pain in either the front or back of the elbow depending on which muscle is involved. Bicep tendonitis is felt in the inner elbow. Tricep tendonitis is felt in the outer elbow. 

  • What is the difference between tennis elbow and golfer's elbow?

    Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, causes a burning pain when you use the forearm extensor muscles to straighten your elbow. With tennis elbow, the pain is felt when you swing a tennis racket, turn a wrench, or mix dough. 

    Golfer’s elbow, known medically as medial epicondylitis, is inflammation in the tendon that connects the elbow to the muscles used to flex the wrist and fingers. It occurs from repeated use of force to grip an object and causes a burning pain on the inside of the elbow. 

    Both tennis elbow and golfer's elbow can make gripping objects harder.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.