What is elbow osteoarthritis?

You might not be making millions off of your ability to throw a baseball, but that doesn’t make your elbow joint any less vital to your body. When your elbows hurt, the pain can be very bothersome, and it may prevent you from doing many of the things you love.

Baseball pitchers aren’t the only ones who should protect their elbows. Keep reading to learn about elbow osteoarthritis, what causes it, and what your treatment options are.

Everyone who has osteoarthritis (OA) experiences a variety of symptoms. Some symptoms may be more intense or occur more frequently than others occur.

The following symptoms are the most common:

  • stiffness
  • pain
  • difficulty moving the joint
  • bone spurs
  • bone grating or scraping
  • joint locking
  • joint instability
  • joint swelling

Wear and tear in your joints damages and destroys the protective cartilage that covers the ends of the bones. Without cartilage protecting the bones, they begin to rub against each other. They may become deformed, swollen, and painful.

Any joint in your body can develop OA, including your:

  • knees
  • toes
  • fingers
  • hips
  • elbows

The elbow is one of the joints less commonly affected by OA. That’s because the ligaments in the elbow are strong enough to stabilize the joint so that it can withstand blows and damage better than some other joints in the body can.

OA is one of the top causes of disability in older adults. Anyone can develop the condition, but some people are more likely to develop it because of their lifestyle, occupation, or habits. People who are more likely to develop elbow OA include:

  • middle-aged men who regularly perform strenuous manual activity, such as shoveling or hammering
  • people with a history of injury or fracture to the elbow
  • older people
  • people whose family members have OA

During a physical examination, your doctor will inspect your elbows for obvious signs of damage or injury. They’ll ask you to perform range-of-motion tests to evaluate the mobility and instability of the joint.

Your doctor may request X-rays to check for a fracture or crack that might be causing your symptoms. An X-ray will detect any bone fragments that may have broken off as a result of OA. They will also look for a loss of joint space, which indicates a loss of cartilage. Blood work may be requested to detect other causes of arthritis. If no other cause is found, your doctor may diagnose your symptoms as elbow OA.

Doctors typically suggest nonsurgical treatments first. These include:

  • Activity restriction: Avoid activities that aggravate the joint. Rest between periods of exercise or activity.
  • Pain management pills: Some over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, including acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can reduce the pain caused by OA.
  • Prescription medications: If OTC pain medicines aren’t effective, your doctor may prescribe prescription drugs. Steroid injections also can help ease pain.
  • Physical therapy: Gentle exercises and heat or cold therapy may be helpful in easing pain. Splints can reduce stress in the affected joint by gently supporting it.

Surgical treatments

If lifestyle treatments aren’t successful, your doctor may perform one of several surgical options in order to ease the symptoms of elbow OA. Surgical options include:

  • Synovectomy: A surgeon removes damaged pieces of the synovium, a thin layer of tissue that surrounds each joint.
  • Arthroscopy: A surgeon uses a small instrument to remove bone fragments, damaged cartilage, and bone spurs from the joint.
  • Osteotomy: A surgeon removes sections of the bone to ease symptoms and reduce the bone-on-bone contact.
  • Arthroplasty: The surgeon replaces the damaged joint with an artificial one.

You can try to prevent elbow OA by protecting your elbows and your joints. Most people diagnosed with elbow OA have a history of damage, such as a fracture, ligament injury, or dislocation in the joint. The more damage your joint endures, the greater your risk for problems like OA.

In some cases, continuous use of the joint can cause elbow OA. Occupations or hobbies that require continuous use of your elbow can lead to an OA diagnosis later in life.

Your elbow is an important, complex joint that affects your whole arm. Damage from elbow OA often can’t be reversed, but treatment and lifestyle modifications can help prevent painful symptoms and disease progression. The sooner you seek diagnosis and treatment, the sooner you can find relief and create a plan that can help you live without pain.