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What causes elbow pain? 14 possible conditions

Elbow Disorder Basics

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.

What Are the Different Types of Elbow Disorders?

Medial Epicondylitis

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).

Lateral Epicondylitis

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:

  • cooks
  • painters
  • carpenters
  • autoworkers
  • plumbers

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).

Olecranon Bursitis

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.

Symptoms include

  • pain
  • difficulty bending the elbow
  • a locking sensation in the elbow
  • a grating sound with movement
  • swelling

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.

Symptoms include:

  • visual changes to the elbow, such as swelling and discoloration
  • inability to move the joint
  • pain

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.

Symptoms include:

  • pain
  • joint instability
  • swelling
  • problems with range of motion

Treatment may include rest, pain relief methods like icing, bracing, and physical therapy.

Osteochondritis Dissecans

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.

How Are Elbow Disorders Diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose elbow disorders through a number of methods, including:

  • physical examination and history
  • 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 experience. Most elbow disorders require conservative treatment. Surgery is a last resort if your symptoms don’t improve.

Your 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

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.

Article Sources:

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


Elbow Pain and Disorders

Elbow pain may involve the arm muscles, elbow ligaments and tendons, as well as the bones in the arm. Many elbow conditions are caused by overuse and sports injuries.

Read more »


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 »



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.

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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...

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Carpal Tunnel

Carpal tunnel syndrome is the compression of the median nerve, the nerve that passes through your wrist. A common symptom is numbness or tingling in the thumb and first three fingers.

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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.

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Tendon Sheath Inflammation (Tenosynovitis)

Tendons, the fibrous tissues that connect muscles to bones, are covered by a protective sheath called synovium, which keeps tendons lubricated. Injury to this area can disrupt this function, causing inflammation.

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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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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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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.

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Rheumatoid Arthritis Overview

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, a disease in which the immune system mistakes the body's own cells for invaders. In RA, the immune system attacks the synovia, the membranes lining the joints.

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Gout Overview

Gout is a type of arthritis caused by too much uric acid in the blood. When the concentration of uric acid gets too high, sharp urate crystals form and collect in the joints, causing swelling and intense pain.

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Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is a form of chronic arthritis that affects children. It is a long-term autoimmune condition characterized by stiffness and swelling in the joints. Most cases of JRA are mild.

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Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever is a possible and potentially serious complication of strep throat. It tends to occur in children between five and 15 years old. Rash is one possible sign of this condition.

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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.