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
- bones in the arm
The treatments for elbow disorders depend on the underlying cause.
There are at least seven different types of elbow disorders. Read on to learn about their symptoms and causes.
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).
Another name for lateral elbow tendinopathy 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:
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:
- physical therapy
- the use of a brace or tennis elbow strap
Common names for olecranon bursitis are:
- student’s elbow
- miner’s elbow
- 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
- medical conditions such as arthritis
- 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 (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.
- difficulty bending the elbow
- a locking sensation in the elbow
- a grating sound during movement
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. A fracture occurs when a bone cracks or breaks.
- visual changes to the elbow, such as swelling and discoloration
- inability to move the joint
A healthcare provider 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:
- partially torn
- completely torn
Sometimes you’ll hear a popping noise upon injury.
- joint instability
- problems with range of motion
Treatment may include:
- pain relief methods such as icing the area
- bracing the elbow
- physical therapy
Osteochondritis dissecans, also called Panner’s disease, 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 undergoing physical therapy treatment.
Your doctor can diagnose elbow disorders through:
- physical examination and medical history
- CT scan
- MRI scan
- 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:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- physical therapy
- braces or immobilization
- steroid injections
- elbow padding
Depending on the cause of your elbow pain, exercise may help you recover and prevent the condition from recurring.
Exercises and stretches may:
- relieve pain
- increase range of motion
- reduce inflammation
- strengthen muscles around the joint to help you avoid future injury
Exercises for pain relief
Research supports the following types of exercises as helping to reduce pain and improve outcomes for people with tennis elbow:
- Eccentric exercises: Muscles lengthen under tension when performing eccentric exercises. A 2014 study found that these exercises reduced pain in people with tennis elbow. Wrist extensor strengthening, a specific type of eccentric exercise, may help lessen tennis elbow pain, according to a 2015 research review.
- Isometric exercises: In isometric exercises, muscles tense up and contract without visibly moving. A 2018 study found that isometric wrist extension exercises reduced tennis elbow pain. However, this exercise alone may not otherwise improve the condition.
- Static stretching exercises: For most effective treatment and pain relief, a 2013 comparison study noted that eccentric exercises should be combined with static stretching exercises.
Multiple studies have indicated that aquatic exercises and strength training may be effective for reducing osteoarthritis pain in the knees and hips. However, more research is needed on exercises to reduce pain from elbow osteoarthritis and other elbow disorders.
It’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about what types and level of exercise will work best for you before starting any exercise program.
Once you begin, keep the following tips in mind:
- Be gentle and stop if you feel sharp pain.
- Avoid overstretching or exercising too much when recovering from an injury.
- Talk to your healthcare provider if your pain doesn’t improve or gets worse, or if there’s increased swelling or redness around your elbow.
Exercise often plays an essential role in recovering from an elbow disorder.
Learn how to perform exercises to help:
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 correct 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 healthcare provider for advice and recommendations.
If you have long-lasting or severe elbow pain, talk to your healthcare provider to determine the cause.
You can often treat elbow conditions with:
- physical therapy
Still, surgery may be necessary in extreme cases.
Exercising and stretching may reduce pain, specifically for tennis elbow, and can aid in recovery.
Strengthening the muscles in your elbow, using proper sport techniques, and taking breaks when making repetitive motions can help you avoid some elbow disorders.