What causes elbow pain? 14 possible conditions

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Elbow Disorder Basics

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.

What Are the Different Types of Elbow Disorders?

Medial Epicondylitis

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

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.

Olecranon Bursitis

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

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.

Osteochondritis Dissecans

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.

How Are Elbow Disorders Diagnosed?

There are a number of ways your doctor can diagnose elbow disorders. These methods include:

  • physical examination
  • X-rays
  • computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • electromyography (EMG)
  • biopsy of bursa fluid

How Are Elbow Disorders Treated?

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:

  • ice
  • rest
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • physical therapy
  • bracing or immobilization
  • steroid injections
  • elbow padding
  • surgical treatments

Prevention of Elbow Disorders

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

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Elbow Pain and Disorders

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 ma...

Read more »

2

Sprains & Strains

Sprains and strains are injuries to the body, often resulting from physical activity. These injuries are common and can range from minor to severe, depending on the incident. Most don't require medical attention.

Read more »

3

Arthritis

Arthritis is inflammation of the joints (where bones meet) in one or more areas of the body. This condition is most commonly seen in adults, but it can also develop in children and teens.

Read more »

4

Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is painful inflammation of the elbow joint caused by repetitive stress (overuse). The pain is typically felt on the outside (lateral) part of the upper arm just above the elbo...

Read more »

5

Carpal Tunnel

Carpal tunnel syndrome is the compression of the median nerve, the nerve that passes through your wrist. The median nerve is located on the palm side of your hand (also called the carpal tunnel). It serves your thum...

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6

Fracture

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A fracture is a broken bone that typically occurs when a bone is impacted by more force or pressure than it can support. In an open fracture, the ends of the broken bone tear the skin.

Read more »

7

Tendon Sheath Inflammation (Tenosynovitis)

A tendon is a type of fibrous tissue connects your muscles to your bones. These tissues help control actions such as running, jumping, and lifting. Without tendons you would not be able to control the movement of you...

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8

Dislocations

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A dislocation occurs when the bones that are usually be connected at a joint separate. You can dislocate a variety of different joints in your body, including your knee, hip, ankle, or shoulder. Since a dislocatio...

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9

Tendinitis

Tendons are thick cords that join your muscles to your bones. Tendinitis occurs when tendons become irritated or inflamed. This condition causes acute pain and tenderness, making it difficult to move the affected joint.

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10

Bursitis

Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursae, the fluid-filled sacs that help reduce friction where tendons, skin, and muscle tissues meet bones. Inflammation can cause discomfort and limit range of motion.

Read more »

11

Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview

Learn about rheumatoid arthritis information, causes, symptoms and treatments. Explore our doctor-reviewed articles and read more now!

Read more »

12

Gout Overview

More than 8 million Americans suffer from gout, and incidence of the disease has increased by about half in the last 20 years. Explore our gout learning center and learn more.

Read more »

13

Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) is a common form of chronic arthritis in children. It is a long-term autoimmune condition characterized by stiffness and swelling in the joints. Most cases of JRA are mild, but sever...

Read more »

14

Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever is one of the complications associated with strep throat. The condition usually appears in children between the ages of 5 and 15, even though older children and adults have been known to contract th...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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