A bump on the elbow can occur for numerous reasons, such as skin irritation, conditions such as arthritis, or an injury. People can treat most elbow bumps with over-the-counter (OTC) medication or rest.

However, if left untreated, underlying medical conditions such as arthritis can cause permanent tissue damage.

This article covers possible causes of bumps on the elbows, from the common to the rarer — and the life-threatening. It also discusses symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.

The following conditions occur commonly and may cause elbow bumps.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis affects more than 32 million adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The National Institute on Aging states that it is the most common form of arthritis among older adults.

X-ray of osteoarthritis in the elbow.
Photography courtesy of J Funct Morphol Kinesiol/PubMed Central

The loss of cartilage, which is the tissue located where two bones meet to form a joint, characterizes the condition. Cartilage acts as a cushion and provides lubrication for the joints. However, the repetitive use of joints over a lifetime can damage the cartilage, which may lead to joint pain and swelling.

Osteoarthritis of the elbow occurs when the cartilage of the elbow becomes worn out. An injury can be the cause, as can normally wear and tear over time.

Osteoarthritis can affect the:

  • elbows
  • fingers
  • feet
  • hands
  • knees
  • hips
  • spine

Symptoms and treatment

The symptoms of osteoarthritis include:

  • pain and stiffness in the joints
  • tender or swollen joints
  • decreased mobility
  • crepitus, or the grinding or cracking sound when moving a joint
  • weak muscles around a joint
  • unstable joints

There is currently no cure for osteoarthritis. Treatment includes a variety of pain medications, including analgesics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Treatments may also include corticosteroids, as well as the antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta) and the anti-seizure drug pregabalin (Lyrica).

Another treatment may be platelet-rich plasma, which is an injection that relieves inflammation and pain. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved this treatment.

In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary. In severe cases in the elbow, the procedure may be an arthroscopy. This is when a surgeon takes out any loose bone pieces or inflamed tissue from the joint.

Outside of medical treatments, a person can make lifestyle modifications that can help relieve symptoms. These can include:

  • losing weight
  • trying physical therapy
  • getting regular exercise
  • eating a well-balanced diet with fruits and vegetables
  • taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements

Learn more about foods to eat and avoid for osteoarthritis here.

Eczema

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, eczema affects about 30% of people in the U.S.

Also known as atopic dermatitis, the inflammatory condition causes inflamed, itchy rashes on the skin. These rashes may appear as small bumps.

Although eczema can affect any area of skin, it commonly appears on the:

  • inside of the arms or elbows
  • behind the knees
  • hands
  • feet
  • face

It can also affect the elbows, but this is more typical in infants aged 6-12 months.

A combination of genetic and environmental factors can cause a person to develop eczema. Eczema can develop alongside food and respiratory allergies and asthma.

People with eczema have more sensitive skin, and the condition can flare up when they use certain products, especially those with fragrances.

Symptoms and treatment

The symptoms of eczema may include:

  • dry and irritated skin
  • itchy skin
  • thick, leathery, scaly, or bumpy patches of skin
  • dry and irritated eyelids and eye problems such as cataracts

There is currently no cure for eczema. However, doctors will primarily treat it with topical corticosteroids.

They may also prescribe phototherapy, which is a treatment of UV light typically in the form of narrowband UVB therapy. The light interacts with the immune system to reduce inflammation and improve the rash and the symptoms.

People can also manage their eczema symptoms with the following tips:

  • Avoid potential triggers, such as allergens in foods, scented products, and harsh chemicals.
  • Keep the skin moisturized with a gentle, fragrance-free cream or plain petroleum jelly.
  • Avoid long showers or baths.
  • Bathe with warm, not hot, water.

Learn more about remedies for eczema here.

Rheumatoid arthritis

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Rheumatoid arthritis causing swelling on the elbow.
Photography courtesy of Medicine (Baltimore)/PubMed Central

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that causes painful swelling in the joints.

According to the CDC, more than 54 million people (23%) have arthritis in the U.S. The number of people who have RA, specifically, is about 1.5 million, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Joint swelling may appear in the:

  • elbows
  • wrists
  • fingers
  • knees
  • ankles
  • toes

Symptoms and treatment

The symptoms of RA include:

  • swelling, tenderness, or stiffness of the joints
  • fatigue
  • low grade fever
  • firm lumps or nodules under the skin
  • anemia or low red blood cell count

If a person does not receive treatment, inflammation can cause tissue damage and affect the shape of the joints. People who have RA can develop rheumatoid nodules, which are firm, round bumps under the skin.

There is currently no cure for RA. However, people can use medication and lifestyle changes such as exercise and physical therapy to reduce joint pain and swelling, and to slow progression.

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, such as methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine, can reduce inflammation, slow down disease progression, and help prevent joint damage.

Also, if they are able, people can work with a treatment team to develop a personalized exercise routine. Stretches and low-impact exercises can help avoid loss of mobility.

Learn more about how RA affects the body here.

These conditions occur more rarely and may also cause elbow bumps.

Gout

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Gout in the elbow can cause swelling.
Arm Mari/Shutterstock

Gout is a type of inflammatory arthritis that can cause severe joint pain. It affects different joints, usually one joint at a time. This includes the joints in the fingers, the writs, and the elbow.

Available data indicate that 3.9% of U.S. adults have this condition, and it is more common in men than women.

The cause of gout is a buildup of uric acid in the joints. Genetics may play a role in this process, but environmental factors may as well. These include medications a person may take, their diet, and any other health conditions they may have.

Symptoms and treatment

The symptoms of gout include:

  • red and hot swelling in the affected joint
  • extreme pain
  • white bumps known as “tophi”

Treatment to decrease swelling and pain often involves medications such as NSAIDs, corticosteroids, and the anti-inflammatory medication colchicine. It may also include lifestyle changes such as eating a balanced diet and exercising, which can help reduce flare-ups.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a condition resulting from immune dysregulation that causes chronic inflammation of the skin. About 3% of people in the U.S. have this condition, which is about the same as the percentage of people who have it worldwide.

People typically develop symptoms on the:

  • elbows
  • knees
  • lower back
  • face
  • scalp

Symptoms and treatment

People who have plaque psoriasis develop discolored, scaly plaques on different parts of the body. In addition, they may also get:

Treatments for psoriasis vary depending on the type, location, and severity of the condition. The treatments can include:

  • OTC or prescription topical ointments, especially topical corticosteroids and vitamin D analogs
  • phototherapy with UV light
  • immunosuppressant drugs, such as methotrexate or cyclosporine
  • biologic medications, such as Humira, Cosentyx, Stelara, or Taltz
  • retinoids such as acitretin, cyclosporine, or methotrexate

Learn more about possible home remedies for psoriasis here.

Lateral and medial epicondylitis

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Golfer’s elbow is caused by repeated stress to the tendons that attach to the elbow. It causes inflammation and pain.
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Lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as “tennis elbow,” is a medical condition. Its main characteristic is inflammation of the tendons that connect the muscles in the forearm to the elbow. According to studies, it occurs in about 1-3% of the population.

An even more rare, but similar condition, is medial epicondylitis. About 7 to 10 times less common than the lateral type, it is known as golfer’s elbow.

Symptoms and treatment

The cause of both conditions is typically repetitive strain on the forearm. However, the type of strain that causes the conditions varies. Tennis elbow leads to pain on the outside of the elbow, whereas golfer’s elbow leads to pain on the inside of elbow.

Generally, people who have lateral or medial epicondylitis may notice the following symptoms:

  • pain or burning in the outer or inner elbow
  • swelling
  • decreased grip strength
  • pain at night
  • wrist pain

Activities that may cause pain in the elbow involve using the forearm. They may include:

  • shaking hands
  • making a fist
  • turning a doorknob
  • gripping an object, such as a tennis racket or ball

Treatments include rest, ice therapy, and OTC anti-inflammatory medication. Wearing a brace on the forearm will give the tendons a chance to heal, helping to reduce painful symptoms and prevent further injury.

People who experience symptoms despite trying the treatments listed above may require surgery or physical therapy.

Learn more about exercises that may help with tennis elbow here.

Lipoma

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A lipoma is a soft, non-cancerous, fatty growth under the skin.
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A lipoma is a soft, noncancerous fatty growth underneath the skin that affects about 1% of the population.

An experienced clinician can usually easily identify a lipoma on a physical exam. The cause is not clear. However, doctors may associate lipomas with certain disorders, family history, or trauma. They can be small or grow to a considerable size.

There are different types of lipomas, such as conventional, atypical, fibrolipoma, angiolipoma, hibernoma, and others.

Symptoms and treatment

The symptoms of a lipoma include round, soft, and rubbery masses that should not be painful. If they are painful, it may be an angiolipoma.

Lipomas are squishy and movable underneath the skin, and do not require treatment since they are noncancerous. However, if a person wants treatment, surgical removal is usually the first choice. A doctor may consider surgery if the lesion is:

  • growing to an undesirable size
  • interfering with daily life
  • cosmetically concerning
  • causing symptoms

A definitive diagnosis is necessary for surgery to be considered. It may also be an option if a diagnosis is in question.

Removal of a lipoma will leave a scar, which will depend on its size and the experience of the surgeon.

It is important to discuss with a surgeon the possible size of the scar before removal, as well as complications, such as keloid formation, which can be more symptomatic than the lipoma itself. Recurrence is common if any part of the lipoma is left under the skin.

Dermatitis herpetiformis

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Dermatitis herpetiformis causes itchy blisters on the skin.
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Dermatitis herpetiformis is a chronic autoimmune condition most common in people who are white. In Europe and the U.S., the prevalence of the condition is about 11.2–75.3 per 100,000. The highest number exists in Finland.

People can develop dermatitis herpetiformis as a result of genetic and environmental factors. Gluten is a common environmental trigger that experts associate with this condition.

Doctors commonly associate dermatitis herpetiformis with celiac disease. Individuals with this disorder should see a gastroenterologist to evaluate for intestinal disease.

Symptoms and treatment

Dermatitis herpetiformis causes itchy, red, fluid-filled bumps on the skin on areas such as the:

  • elbows
  • knees
  • buttocks
  • lower back
  • scalp

Often, only small scratches in the skin will be evident in these areas since the blisters are very fragile, and a person can easily destroy them by scratching.

A doctor can diagnose dermatitis herpetiformis by analyzing a skin sample for the presence of antibody proteins. Antibody proteins appear on areas of skin the condition affects in 92% of people who have it.

Effective treatments for this condition include:

  • topical and oral dapsone
  • gluten-free diet
  • topical corticosteroids

Learn more about gluten-free foods for different diets here.

The following cases can cause elbow bumps and may be life-threatening:

Olecranon bursitis

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A bursa is a fluid-filled sac that helps to cushion a joint. Olecranon bursitis means inflammation of the bursa on the elbow.
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There are no estimates for the prevalence of olecranon bursitis. According to research estimates on the incidence, about 10 in 100,000 people present for treatment with olecranon bursitis.

It is often a treatable condition. However, if the area is infected and the person does not get timely treatment, it can lead to sepsis. In a 2017 study on olecranon bursitis in a military population, septic cases accounted for 24% of all cases.

This condition occurs when a fluid-filled sac in the elbow called the olecranon bursa becomes inflamed. People usually develop this condition in response to an infection or after an elbow injury.

Symptoms and treatment

Symptoms of olecranon bursitis include:

  • swelling at the tip of the elbow
  • a round, painless sac on the bony part of elbow, also known as a swollen bursa
  • warmth, pain, or swelling of the bursa indicating inflammation, including infection

An uninfected bursa will likely heal with rest and anti-inflammatory medication. A person can use elbow pads and reduce physical activities to limit pressure on the elbow joint and allow it to heal. To clear an infected bursa, a person will need to take antibiotics.

Doctors may also use a needle to drain the bursa from its fluid or administer steroid injections to reduce inflammation. They will consider surgical intervention on a case-by-case basis.

Learn more about bursitis in general here.

Olecranon fracture

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A scar after surgery for an olecranon fracture.
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An olecranon fracture happens when there is a break in the tip of the elbow, which is part of the ulna. The ulna is one of the three bones that form the elbow joint. This is a very painful fracture that usually happens as a result of trauma.

Olecranon fractures represent about 10% of all fractures in the upper extremities. The incidence of these fractures is 12 per 10,000 people.

This kind of fracture can be dangerous when the bones break in a way that makes them stick out of the skin, or there is a very deep wound. Doctors call this an open fracture, and it requires immediate treatment to avoid infection. About 6.4% of olecranon fracture injuries are open fractures.

Symptoms and treatment

The typical symptoms that people will present with after an injury that causes an olecranon fracture are pain and swelling in the tip of the elbow. The swelling can appear as a lump. A person will not be able to extend the arm against gravity.

Additional symptoms may include:

  • burising
  • numbness in the fingers of the affected hand
  • joint instability

Treatment will involve immobilizing the elbow with a splint in a flexed position of 45–90 degrees. Doctors will then run imaging tests to monitor the healing process. More serious injuries may require surgery. The joint may need fixation with a plate and screw.

People with an open fracture will go to surgery as soon as possible. They will usually receive intravenous antibiotics and a tetanus shot. The surgery will involve both cleaning the wound and repairing the bone.

Malignant elbow tumor

People rarely develop tumors in the elbow. According to research, the incidence is only 1%, and benign tumors may be more common than malignant ones in this area.

However, because malignant elbow tumors are so rare, doctors may be unfamiliar with them and may misdiagnose them. The incidence of misdiagnosis for these types of tumors is around 13%. The impact of misdiagnosis can be high, as it may mean delayed treatment, a potential loss of limb, and possible death.

The types of malignant tumors that may affect the elbow are:

  • ewing sarcoma
  • osteosarcoma
  • chondrosarcoma

Symptoms and treatment

The symptoms will vary depending on the type of tumor and how it presents. Generally, a person may experience any of the following:

  • severe pain in the elbow bone
  • fever
  • anemia
  • lump of swelling on the surface the affected area
  • night sweats
  • a broken bone that occurs without an injury
  • limited joint movement

In the past, most elbow tumors were treated with amputation. These days, doctors can use chemotherapy and different types of surgeries to excise the tumor and save a person’s arm.

However, a person should decide the best course of treatment with an orthopedic oncologist, who will consider a variety of factors, such as where exactly the tumor is located and whether the cancer has metastasized.

Skin conditions, joint inflammation, and injuries to the tendons in the forearm can all cause bumps, lumps, or swelling on the elbow. Usually, this indicates a medical condition or injury in the area.

People should pay close attention to their symptoms. If their symptoms are not acute or life threatening, a person can contact a doctor if they experience pain or swelling in their elbow that does not get better with rest, ice therapy, or OTC anti-inflammatory medication.