What causes elbow pain? 14 possible conditions
If you have elbow pain, a number of disorders could be the culprit. Overuse and sports injuries cause many elbow conditions. For example, golfers, baseball pitchers, tennis players, and boxers often have elbow disorders.
Elbow disorders may involve arm muscles, elbow ligaments, tendons, and bones in the arm. The treatments for elbow disorders depend on the underlying cause.
This affects the inner tendon in the elbow and is commonly called “golfer’s elbow” and “little leaguer’s elbow.” The repetitive throwing motion used in baseball or the downward swing of a golf club is a common cause.
Medial epicondylitis can also be the result of repetitive hand motion, such as swinging a hammer every day at work. This disorder can cause pain along the inside of the elbow. Wrist movements can especially trigger pain. This condition usually improves with rest and conventional treatment methods, such as icing or over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory drugs (ex. ibuprofen).
Another name for lateral epicondylitis is “tennis elbow.” It affects the tendon on the outside of the elbow. Playing racquet sports or working in certain professions that use the same sort of motion can cause this condition. Professionals who commonly experience lateral epicondylitis include:
Symptoms such as pain or burning occur along the outside of the elbow. You also may experience problems with gripping. These symptoms usually improve with rest, physical therapy, or the use of a brace (tennis elbow strap).
Common names for olecranon bursitis are “student’s elbow,” “miner’s elbow,” and “draftman’s elbow.” Bursitis affects bursae, small sacs of fluid that help protect and lubricate the joints. Olecranon bursitis affects the bursae 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 medical conditions like arthritis.
Symptoms include swelling, pain, and difficulty moving the elbow. Redness and warmth may occur in the case of an infection. Medication and wearing elbow pads treat this condition. Surgery may 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. An elbow injury or wear and tear on the joints may cause osteoarthritis.
- difficulty bending the elbow
- a locking sensation in the elbow
- a grating sound with movement
Medication and physical therapy usually treat osteoarthritis. Surgery, including joint replacement, is an option in more severe cases.
Dislocation or Fracture of the Elbow
An injury to the elbow, such as a fall on an outstretched arm or elbow, can cause dislocation or a fracture. Dislocation occurs when a bone moves from its usual position, and a fracture happens when a bone cracks or breaks.
- visual changes to the elbow, such as swelling and discoloration
- inability to move the joint
A doctor can move the dislocated bone back into place. They’ll place the dislocated or fractured elbow in a splint or cast, and give you medication 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 sprains and strains can occur due to trauma or as a result of repeated stress. The ligament may be stretched, partially torn, or completely torn. Sometimes you’ll hear a popping noise upon injury.
- joint instability
- problems with range of motion
Treatment may include rest, pain relief methods like icing, bracing, and physical therapy.
Also called Panner’s disease, this condition occurs when small pieces of cartilage and bone become dislodged in the elbow joint. It’s often the result of a sports injury to the elbow and occurs most often in young men.
Pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow, trouble extending the arm, and a feeling that the joint is locking could indicate this condition. You can treat this injury by immobilizing the elbow joint and going to physical therapy.
Your doctor can diagnose elbow disorders through a number of methods, including:
- physical examination and history
- computerized tomography (CT) scan
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- electromyography (EMG)
- biopsy of bursa fluid
Treatment varies, depending on the elbow disorder and symptoms you experience. Most elbow disorders require conservative treatment. Surgery is a last resort if your symptoms don’t improve.
Your treatment options include:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- physical therapy
- bracing or immobilization
- steroid injections
- elbow padding
- surgical treatments
Most elbow disorders are the result of overuse and injury. You can prevent them by:
- correcting improper sports techniques
- using a proper-sized grip on sports equipment
- using proper tension on racquets
- warming up and stretching properly
- using elbow padding
It’s also important to take breaks from repetitive tasks and practice exercises that can help strengthen the muscles around your elbow joint. Talk to your doctor for advice and recommendations.
- Elbow problems. (2015). Retrieved from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/elbow/sh_overview.aspx
- Keener, J. D. Elbow (olecranon) bursitis. (2011, January). Retrieved from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00028
- Maya Clinic Staff. Elbow pain. (2013, April 9). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/elbow-pain/MY00115/DSECTION=causes
- Osteoarthritis of the elbow. (2007, August). Retrieved from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00421
- Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis). (2015, July). Retrieved from http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00068
- What are bursitis and tendinitis? (2014, November). Retrieved from http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bursitis/bursitis_tendinitis_ff.pdf
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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