What Is Psoriasis Elbow?

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Psoriasis is more common than you may realize, with estimated prevalences reaching up to 11% in adults and up to 1.3% in children.

Psoriasis elbow is when you have psoriasis symptoms on your elbow skin. You may notice the characteristic red, itchy, raised plaque patches with silvery scales on one elbow or both.

If you have psoriasis on your elbow, it’s likely plaque psoriasis. Plaque psoriasis is the most common form of psoriasis, accounting for as many as 90% of all cases.

The World Health Organization’s Global Report on Psoriasis says psoriasis can be painful, disfiguring, and disabling, leading to social stigmatization, isolation, and depression.

Male rubbing moisturizing lotion on dry elbows and arm

Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Causes

The cause of psoriasis is unclear. There is, however, a genetic component and some suggestions of autoimmune disorder, although no single gene or autoantigen marker for psoriasis has been detected.

External factors including mild physical trauma, sunburn, infections, certain medications, smoking status, obesity, and stress can all also be underlying factors in whether or not someone develops psoriasis.

It can be difficult if your psoriasis is caused by medications, because induced and drug-aggravated psoriasis may be indistinguishable from psoriasis caused by other factors.

Medications That Can Cause Psoriasis

Medications with side effects that can contribute to psoriasis include:

  • Beta-blockers
  • Lithium (mood stabilizer)
  • Antimalarial drugs such as chloroquine
  • Interferons (drugs that interfere with virus multiplication)
  • Aldara or any imiquimod (alters your immune system response)
  • Terbinafine (antifungal)
  • Certain drugs for cancer treatment

Signs and Symptoms

Though symptoms can start at any age and in any person, they typically appear between ages 15 and 25, and they may not always present in the same way. You can have more than one type of symptom at the same time.

You may experience psoriasis symptoms like:

  • Skin cell growth starting with little red bumps and thickening, causing plaque formations on your elbow
  • Scale (a dry, thin, and silvery-white coating) covering some plaques
  • Plaques of different sizes
  • Smaller plaques joining together to form larger plaques
  • Itchiness (although scratching will only make the skin grow thicker)
  • Skin pain or cracking and bleeding
  • Psychological symptoms, including feelings of embarrassment, shame, or desire to isolate or hide your symptoms from others
  • Depression or anxiety that often accompanies living with chronic illness

You may have these symptoms on more areas than your elbows, including your genitals, legs, and/or feet. Do a full body scan to determine how severe it is and how many areas of your body are being affected.

Diagnosis

If you are experiencing dry, thick, raised skin patches, it’s time to talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a board-certified skin specialist called a dermatologist to get a diagnosis of psoriasis.

While you may be tempted to self-diagnose and treat at home, it’s recommended you see a professional to confirm your diagnosis and rule out any other skin disorders or infection-based reasons for your symptoms (e.g., fungal infection).

Psoriasis cannot be cured, but it can be treated. Your dermatologist can help you develop a coping plan for the long term.

What a Dermatologist Evaluates

A board-certified dermatologist considers factors, including your:

  • Age
  • Other medical conditions
  • Risk for developing other medical conditions
  • Response to past treatments for psoriasis
  • Concerns about how psoriasis affects your life
  • Other medications

Your dermatologist can see the signs of psoriasis during a physical examination of your skin, scalp, and nails, and can take your medical history and symptom history to make an accurate diagnosis.

They will ask you about:

  • Symptoms, such as red bumps or itchy skin
  • Joint problems, such as pain and swelling or stiffness when you wake up
  • Blood relatives who have psoriasis
  • Recent changes in your life, such as an illness or increased stress

Treatment

Several options exist for treating psoriasis. Your dermatologist will narrow down which are likely to be most effective and which are safest for you personally.

You may need to experiment with some different options before finding what works, and you may need to adjust treatment strategies as your life situation requires (e.g., during more stressful times that could amplify symptoms).

Treatment is important for reducing both the skin inflammation and the internal inflammation that comes with living with psoriasis. Reducing this type of inflammation is said to help in reducing risk of heart disease and stroke, too.

Medication

Medication can help reduce your symptoms of elbow psoriasis. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, psoriasis medications that may reduce the risk of heart and blood vessel diseases are prescribed to treat moderate or severe psoriasis. These include:

  • Methotrexate (general immune system suppressant) 
  • Biologics which offer targeted immune system blocking (i.e., they target T-cells involved in inflammation) like Enbrel (etanercept) or Humira (adalimumab)
  • Otezla (apremilast), an oral medication

All the current biologics can be used with other treatments such as phototherapy or topicals, but be aware that using phototherapy along with Remicade may increase your skin cancer risk.

Psoriasis medications are not without their side effects and risks, too. It’s important to talk to your dermatologist about any concerns you may have, and to provide a full list of other prescriptions, vitamins, and supplements you are taking that may contribute to psoriasis or side effects from psoriasis medications.

Good Skincare Routine 

Applying medicated ointments, creams, foams, or sprays to affected areas is part of treating your elbow psoriasis. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may do just fine with the over-the-counter options available, but you can also access more strongly medicated options through your dermatologist, who can choose the best option for your treatment.

Medicated options may include:

  • Topical treatments like steroids and vitamin D creams
  • Oral medications
  • Injectable biologics

Light Therapy 

One 2017 study suggests light therapy, also known as phototherapy, can be used for treating symptoms in cases of moderate-to-severe psoriasis, and that it’s generally used when other first-line treatments are not quite enough. 

This same study detailed some of the disadvantages of light therapy, including:

  • It requires several sessions per week (intense effort).
  • Prolonged and repeated use increases your risk of skin cancer. 
  • Sessions also dry out the skin, which can promote further itching if you don’t apply ointment or cream afterward.

Coping Strategies

Having elbow psoriasis can present its own unique set of challenges. While you may gravitate toward covering your elbow so others don’t notice, some fabrics can also irritate psoriasis outbreaks. 

Here’s a few tips for coping:

  • Choose loose-fitting long sleeves so fabric doesn’t rub against elbow skin.
  • Try to find breathable fabrics.
  • Avoid fabrics like wool that can further irritate skin plaques and get caught up in rough skin patches.
  • Wash fabrics in scent- and dye-free detergent to prevent irritation.
  • Try not to lean on your affected elbow or elbows, as the friction and pressure could also cause discomfort to the affected area.
  • Wash your elbows with lukewarm water. Hot water increases inflammation and can strip away much of your body’s natural oils.
  • Avoid using excessive amounts of soap. The more you do, the drier your skin will be. Stick to soaping those parts of your body that need it (with soap made for sensitive skin).

A Word From Verywell

Elbow psoriasis is something you can manage when you get an accurate diagnosis and start working with a board-certified dermatologist. Many treatment options are available, although what works for one may not work for all.

Still, there are plenty of options—from OTC creams to prescription immunosuppressants to light therapy. These can help reduce that irritating itching, as well as help heal affected elbows and other areas.

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Article Sources
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