What Causes Elbow Pain?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

If you have elbow pain, one of several disorders could be the culprit. Overuse and sports injuries cause many elbow conditions. Golfers, baseball pitchers, tennis players, and boxers often have elbow disorders. Elbow disorders may involve any of... Read More

If you have elbow pain, one of several disorders could be the culprit. Overuse and sports injuries cause many elbow conditions. Golfers, baseball pitchers, tennis players, and boxers often have elbow disorders.

Elbow disorders may involve any of the following:

  • arm muscles
  • elbow ligaments
  • tendons
  • bones in the arm
  • bursae

The treatments for elbow disorders depend on the underlying cause.

What are the different types of elbow disorders?

There are at least seven different types of elbow disorders. Read on to learn about their symptoms and causes.

Medial epicondylitis

Medial epicondylitis affects the inner tendons in the elbow and is commonly called golfer’s elbow and little leaguer’s elbow. The repetitive throwing motion used in baseball and the downward swing of a golf club are common causes.

Medial epicondylitis can also be the result of a 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 in particular can trigger pain. This condition usually improves with rest and conventional treatment methods, such as icing the area or using over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).

Lateral epicondylitis

Another name for lateral epicondylitis is tennis elbow. It affects the tendons 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 or tennis elbow strap.

Olecranon bursitis

Common names for olecranon bursitis are student’s elbow, miner’s elbow, and draftsman’s elbow. Bursitis affects bursae, small sacs of fluid that help protect 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 such as arthritis.

Symptoms include swelling, pain, and difficulty moving the elbow. Redness and warmth may occur in the case of an infection.

Medication and elbow pads treat this condition. Surgery may be necessary in severe and chronic cases.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a condition that affects the cartilage, a type of connective tissue found in the joints. OA causes this tissue to wear down and become damaged. Elbow OA may be caused by an elbow injury or wear and tear on the joints.

Symptoms include:

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

OA is usually treated with medication and physical therapy. 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:

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 helps 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 may be the result of trauma or 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 such as icing the area
  • bracing the elbow
  • 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 is most often seen 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:

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:

How do you prevent elbow disorders?

Most elbow disorders are the result of overuse and injury. You can prevent them by:

  • correcting improper sport 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. Practice exercises that can help strengthen the muscles around your elbow joint. Talk to your doctor for advice and recommendations.

Medically reviewed by Gregory Minnis, DPT on July 11, 2017Written by Danielle Moores


13 possible conditions

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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