What causes elbow pain? 14 possible conditions
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A number of disorders can affect the elbow. Many elbow conditions are caused by overuse and sports injuries. Golfers, baseball pitchers, tennis players, and boxers often suffer from elbow disorders.
Elbow disorders may involve the arm muscles, elbow ligaments and tendons, as well as the bones in the arm. The treatments for elbow disorders depend on the symptoms and the structures affected.
This is commonly called “golfer’s elbow” and “little leaguer’s elbow.” It affects the inner tendon in the elbow and can be caused by the repetitive throwing motion used in baseball or the downward swing of a golf club.
Medial epicondylitis can also be caused by the repetitive motion of hands, such as swinging a hammer every day at work. This disorder can cause pain along the inside of the elbow. The pain is especially noticed with wrist movements. This condition usually improves with rest and conservative treatment methods, such as icing and over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen).
Lateral epicondylitis is also called “tennis elbow.” This affects the tendon on the outside of the elbow. It may be caused by playing racquet sports or working in certain professions that use the same sort of motion. Professionals who commonly experience lateral epicondylitis include cooks, painters, carpenters, autoworkers, and plumbers.
Symptoms include pain or burning along the outside of the elbow and problems with gripping. These symptoms usually improve with rest, physical therapy, or use of a brace.
Oldecranon bursitis is also called “student’s elbow,” “miner’s elbow,” and “draftman’s elbow.” Bursitis affects bursae, which are small sacs of fluid that help protect and lubricate the joints. Olecranon bursitis affects the bursa protecting the pointy bone of the elbow. It may be caused by a blow to the elbow, leaning on the elbow for a prolonged period of time, infection, or by other medical conditions like arthritis.
Symptoms include swelling, pain, and trouble moving the elbow. In case of an infection, there may also be redness and warmth. This elbow condition can be treated by taking medication and wearing elbow pads. Surgery may also be necessary in severe and chronic cases.
Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects the cartilage—a type of connective tissue found in joints. Osteoarthritis causes this tissue to wear down and become damaged. It may be caused as the result of an elbow injury or due to wear and tear on the joints.
Symptoms include pain, trouble bending the elbow, a locking sensation in the elbow, a grating sound with movement, and swelling. Osteoarthritis can usually be treated with medication and physical therapy. Surgery is an option in more severe cases.
Dislocation or Fracture of the Elbow
Dislocations and fractures are usually caused by an injury to the elbow, such as a fall on an outstretched arm or elbow. Dislocation occurs when a bone has been moved from its usual position, and a fracture happens when there is a crack or break in the bone.
Symptoms include visual changes to the elbow, pain, swelling, discoloration, and inability to move the joint. If there is a dislocation, a doctor can move the bone back into place. A dislocated or fractured elbow will be placed in a splint or cast, and medication given for pain and swelling. Physical therapy will help restore the range of motion after the splint or cast is removed.
Ligament Strains and Sprains
Ligament problems can occur in any of the ligaments located in the elbow joint. Ligament strains and sprains can occur due to trauma or as a result of repeated stress. The ligament may be stretched, partially torn, or completely torn. Sometimes a popping noise can be heard upon injury.
Symptoms include pain, joint instability, swelling, and problems with range of motion. Treatment may include rest, pain relief methods like icing and bracing, and physical therapy.
This is also called Panner’s disease, and it occurs when small pieces of cartilage and bone become dislodged in the elbow joint. It is often the result of a sports injury to the elbow and occurs most often in young men.
Symptoms include pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow, trouble extending the arm, and a feeling that the joint is locking. Treatment includes immobilization of the elbow joint and physical therapy.
There are a number of ways your doctor can diagnose elbow disorders. These methods include:
- physical examination
- computerized tomography (CT) scan
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- electromyography (EMG)
- biopsy of bursa fluid
Treatment varies depending on the elbow disorder and symptoms you are experiencing. Most elbow disorders require conservative treatment. Surgery is used as a last resort if symptoms do not improve.
Treatment options include:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- physical therapy
- bracing or immobilization
- steroid injections
- elbow padding
- surgical treatments
As most elbow disorders are the result of overuse and injury, many can be prevented by:
- correcting improper sports techniques
- using a proper-sized grip on sports equipment
- using proper tension on racquets
- warming up and stretching properly
- practicing exercises to strengthen the muscles around the elbow joint
- using elbow padding
- taking breaks from repetitive tasks
- Elbow 101 (n.d.).Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved June 16, 2012, from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/elbow/sh_overview.aspx
- Elbow (Olecranon) Bursitis. (2011, January 1).American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Retrieved June 16, 2012, from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00028
- Elbow Disorders. (n.d.).National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved June 16, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27269/
- Elbow Pain. (2010, Sep 11). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved June 16, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/elbow-pain/MY00115/DSECTION=causes
- Osteoarthritis of the Elbow. (2007, August 1).American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Retrieved June 16, 2012, from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00421
- Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis). (2009, September 1).American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Retrieved June 16, 2012, from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00068
- What are Bursitis and Tendinitis? (2011, April).National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Retrieved June 16, 2012, from http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bursitis/bursitis_tendinitis_ff.pdf
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