What Causes Pain in Both Elbows?

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If you’ve ever hit your funny bone, you know that elbow pain can be frustrating. But with the different muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones involved in the elbow, it can be difficult to figure out exactly why your elbow hurts.

The elbow is the joint that connects your upper arm to your lower arm. While numerous tendons and muscles help stabilize and protect your elbow, the ulnar collateral ligament and the radial collateral ligament are both especially important parts of your anatomy.

If you injure one of these ligaments or damage the cartilage in your elbow joint, you may experience elbow pain. While people may benefit from learning more about the potential causes of their elbow pain, they should avoid diagnosing themselves. Instead, this article can serve as a guideline so you may better describe your pain to your doctor.

A woman stands outside, cradling her elbow in one hand.

Anupong Thongchan / EyeEm / Getty Images

Causes

Many people will experience pain in one elbow, especially if they’ve injured themselves during an accident or if they’ve overexerted their elbow while playing a sport. Olecranon bursitis is another condition often affecting one elbow.

However, some people may feel pain in both elbows. Several conditions, including but not limited to tendonitis and arthritis, can cause pain in one or both elbows.

Tendonitis

Tendonitis is a painful condition that happens when your tendons―the tissues that connect your muscles to your bones―become inflamed. While tendonitis can cause aching pains in your elbow or throughout your arm, the condition is often temporary.

People may experience tendonitis after they overwork their elbows by scrubbing their floors by hand, playing tennis, or doing other tasks where they are repeatedly moving their elbows. Some activities may lead to both elbows becoming inflamed.

If you have tendonitis, you may find relief when you rest your arms. If your symptoms do not resolve after several days of at-home care, consider visiting a doctor.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Unlike tendonitis, arthritis is a chronic condition. 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 your elbows.

RA usually affects joints symmetrically, so if one elbow has symptoms, the other does as well. It affects one or both elbows quite often, in 20% to 65% of cases.

In your elbows, there are soft tissues that help cushion and protect your bones. These tissues normally work as shock-absorbers, allowing your joint to move without the bones painfully rubbing against each other.

If you have RA, the synovial membrane swells and thickens. You may have a smaller range of motion in your elbows. You may also feel throbbing, aching, or radiating pains, especially when you wake up in the morning or if you’ve not moved your arms for a long period of time.

While there’s no cure for RA, your doctor may prescribe immunosuppressants or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). Some people with mild to moderate elbow pain may apply heat or ice packs to reduce the inflammation from their RA symptoms.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is another common culprit in chronic elbow pain. It tends to affect the joint on one side first, but the other elbow may also develop it. Unfortunately, osteoarthritis is a chronic disease that, like RA, can’t be cured. However, there are several options to reduce their pain and prevent further injury to their joints.

If you have osteoarthritis in your elbows, the soft tissues between your bones have begun to erode. As you age, repeated movement and pressure on your joints can eventually wear away the cartilage in your elbows. Without these soft tissues to pillow your elbow, you may feel like your arm is stiff or aches.

While you may not be able to rebuild or replace the lost tissues in your elbow, you can wear elbow braces and do low-impact activities to preserve the remaining cartilage.

When to See a Doctor

If you are experiencing pain, you may wonder when you should consult a doctor. Any pains that disrupt your life are a potential cause for medical concern and may warrant a doctor’s visit. Otherwise, if your elbow pain doesn’t improve with several days of at-home treatment and rest, you should seek medical advice.

If you have an accident or injury that has caused sudden or severe elbow pain, consider visiting your doctor. You may have dislocated or fractured your elbow, and a doctor can determine the severity of your injury.

Additionally, if you have already been diagnosed with arthritis but are experiencing new, different, or worsening elbow pains, you may consider visiting your doctor to manage your changing symptoms.

Diagnosis

Your general practitioner or a specialist, such as a rheumatologist, may use several different methods to diagnose the cause of your elbow pain.

Physical Exam

A physical exam can help your doctor understand where and why exactly you are hurting. The doctor may feel and move your elbow, rotating your arm to pinpoint swelling, irritation, or potential injuries. They may ask you to raise your arms, bend your elbow, or clench your fists to observe your range of motion.

Imaging

An X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can show your doctor the condition of the bones in your arm, so these imaging tests are especially helpful when analyzing if a skeletal issue may be causing your elbow pain. Imaging tests can reveal advanced osteoarthritis or bone fractures.  

Lab Tests

After a physical exam, your doctor may decide lab tests will be useful. Blood tests can help identify RA or another autoimmune condition, infection, cancer, or other illnesses that may be contributing to your elbow pain.

Treatment

Over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) are common medications to relieve their elbow pains. Holding a cold or hot compress to your elbow may help reduce swelling.

A doctor may recommend an opioid drug such as oxycodone or hydrocodone if you have an advanced form of arthritis or a serious elbow injury. Use opioids only as prescribed due to the risk of addiction.

If an injury or overexertion led to your elbow pain, you might need to rest and wear a sports brace for extra support. If you have arthritis, though, your doctor may encourage you to adopt more exercise to keep your joints loose and flexible, which can help you move your arms easier in the future.

If rheumatoid arthritis is the cause of your elbow pain, treatment will usually include immunosuppressants or DMARDs.

Some patients complement their normal medical routine with alternative therapies like acupuncture. While some studies indicate positive outcomes for arthritis patients who get regular acupuncture treatments, especially electro-acupuncture, these therapies are not meant to replace your doctor’s advice or your prescribed medications.

While no one coping method will work for everyone, many people find that strategies that provide some relief include gentle exercise (yoga, swimming, stretches), heat or ice packs, and over-the-counter pain medications. Light weight lifting can help strengthen your arm muscles, which can protect you from future elbow strain.

Consult with your doctor to determine a medical plan for your specific needs.

A Word From Verywell

Our elbows help us do important things like lifting children or grandchildren, waving to neighbors, catching a ball, closing a door, or cooking our favorite recipes. When your elbows hurt, you may feel frustrated if you can’t do many of these daily tasks without discomfort.

While there are several potential causes for your elbow pain, like tendonitis or arthritis, your doctor can help you determine the cause of your pain. And once you are diagnosed, you can work with your doctor to begin a routine to manage your elbow pain. 

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