What can cause bumps on the elbows?
Underlying medical conditions, such as arthritis, can cause permanent tissue damage if left untreated, however.
In this article, we cover eight possible causes of bumps on the elbows. We also discuss symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for each.
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, refers to an inflammatory skin condition that causes red, 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
- behind the knees
It can also affect the elbows, but this is more typical in infants with eczema. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, eczema affects an estimated 30% of people in the United States.
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 when they use certain products, especially those with fragrances.
A doctor can diagnose eczema by reviewing a person's medical history and examining the affected skin. A doctor may recommend further testing to rule out other potential skin conditions.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for eczema. However, prescription topical corticosteroids are the primary means of treating the rash and its symptoms.
Phototherapy, typically in the form of Narrowband UVB therapy, uses ultraviolet light for another treatment. The light interacts with the immune system to reduce inflammation and improve the rash and the symptoms.
People can 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 Vaseline.
- Do not take long showers or baths.
- Bathe with warm, not hot, water.
Psoriasis is a disorder resulting from immune dysregulation that causes chronic inflammation of the skin. People who have plaque psoriasis develop pink or white scaly plaques on areas, typically, the:
- lower back
Some other symptoms of psoriasis include:
- pink patches in the folds of the body, known as inverse psoriasis
- pain or swelling of the joints, known as psoriatic arthritis
- pitting or other changes in the nails, known as nail psoriasis
A doctor can usually diagnose psoriasis from the skin's appearance.
Treatments for psoriasis vary depending on the location and severity of the condition, and if psoriatic arthritis is present. These treatments can include:
- over-the-counter or prescription topical ointments, especially topical corticosteroids and Vitamin D analogs
- phototherapy with ultraviolet light
- immunosuppressant drugs, such as methotrexate or cyclosporine
- biologic medicines, such as Humira, Cosentyx, Stelara, or Taltz
- an oral retinoid known as Acitretin
3. Rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is another autoimmune disorder that causes painful swelling in the joints, such as the:
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.
Symptoms of RA include:
- swelling, tenderness, or stiffness of the joints
- weight loss
- low grade fever
- firm lumps or nodules under the skin
- anemia or low red blood cell count
A doctor can diagnose RA by examining the joints and performing tests, such as:
- blood test
There is no cure for RA. However, people can use medication and lifestyle changes to reduce joint pain, slow progression, and reduce swelling.
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), such as methotrexate and hydroxychloroquine, can reduce inflammation and slow down disease progression. These medications may help prevent joint damage.
Also, people can work with their treatment team to develop a personalized exercise routine. Stretches and low impact exercise can help avoid loss of mobility.
Osteoarthritis affects over 30 million adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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 can affect the:
Symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- pain and stiffness in the joints
- tender joints
- decreased mobility
- crepitus, or the grinding or cracking sound when moving a joint
Doctors can diagnose osteoarthritis with imaging tests, such as X-rays and MRIs.
A doctor might aspirate an affected joint, which involves collecting and analyzing fluid from the area. The results of this test can help rule out other medical conditions that cause joint inflammation and pain.
Treatments for osteoarthritis include medication and surgery to reduce swelling in the joints as well as lifestyle changes, such as:
- weight loss
- physical therapy
- regular exercise
- eating a well-balanced diet with fruits and vegetables
- taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements
5. Olecranon bursitis
Image credit: PD, 2007
Olecranon bursitis causes swelling and redness at the tip of the elbow. It 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 of olecranon bursitis include:
- swelling at the tip of the elbow
- a round, painless lump on the elbow, also known as a swollen bursa
- warmth, pain, or swelling of the bursa indicating inflammation, including infection
A doctor will likely run one or more imaging tests to diagnose an inflamed bursa and rule out other causes. Blood tests may aid diagnosis by evaluating specific forms of arthritis or any infection.
An uninfected bursa will likely heal with rest and anti-inflammatory medicine. An infected bursa will need antibiotics. Doctors may also use steroid injections to reduce inflammation. They will consider surgical intervention on a case-by-case basis.
6. Lateral epicondylitis
People develop this condition from performing repetitive motions that involve the elbow. People who have lateral epicondylitis may notice the following symptoms:
- pain in the outer elbow that worsens when using the forearm
- decreased grip strength
Activities that may cause pain in the elbow include:
- shaking hands
- making a fist
- turning a doorknob
- gripping an object, such as a tennis racket or ball
A doctor can diagnose lateral epicondylitis with the following:
- a physical examination of the elbow
- imaging tests, such as an MRI or X-ray
Treatments for tennis elbow include rest, ice therapy, and over-the-counter 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.
Image credit: Jmarchn, 2016
A lipoma is a soft, noncancerous fatty growth underneath the skin. An experienced clinician can usually easily identify a lipoma on physical exam.
Doctors may associate lipomas with certain disorders, family history, or trauma. They can be small or grow to a considerable size.
Signs and symptoms of a lipoma:
- Lipomas are usually asymptomatic. If painful to the touch, they may be a specific variant known as an angiolipoma.
- They are typically a slow growing soft, squishy movable mass underneath the skin.
Lipomas 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, or 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 that can be more symptomatic than the lipoma itself. Recurrence is common if any part of the lipoma is left under the skin.
8. Dermatitis herpetiformis
Image credit: ballenablanca, 2013
Dermatitis herpetiformis is a chronic autoimmune condition that causes itchy, red, fluid filled bumps on the skin on areas such as the:
- lower back
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.
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.
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 dermatitis herpetiformis.
Effective treatments for this condition include:
- topical and oral dapsone
- gluten-free diet
- topical corticosteroids
When to see a doctor
People may want to speak with a doctor about bumps on the elbow if they experience:
- a red, itchy, or painful rash
- swelling or warmth in the elbow
- pain when moving the wrist or forearm
Early diagnosis can lead to better treatment outcomes, and it is vital that people do not wait for their symptoms to worsen before seeking treatment.
Elbow skin care tips
In some cases, bumps and changes on the elbow may be impossible to prevent. However, people, especially those with eczema, can take general measures to care for their skin by using the following skin care tips:
- Keep the elbows moisturized with gentle, unscented creams, and ointments.
- Apply cream or ointment to the elbows and cover with a sock or cotton shirt for an overnight treatment.
- Bathe the elbows in warm, not hot, water to avoid drying out the skin.
- Avoid skin products that contain harsh chemicals and added fragrances.
Skin conditions, joint inflammation, and injuries to the tendons in the forearm can all cause bumps or changes on the elbow. Usually, a bump or rash on the elbow indicates an underlying medical condition or injury.
People should pay close attention to their symptoms. They can see a doctor if they experience pain or swelling in their elbow that does not get better with rest, ice therapy, or over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory medication.