Elbow arthritis occurs due to wear and tear or damage to the cartilage in the elbow. This damage may be due to overuse that comes with age, repetitive activities, or an injury, such as a fracture.

Arthritis is a painful and relatively common condition. It causes joint pain and swelling in people of any age. However, it is most common in individuals as they become older. An estimated 1 in 4 adults in the United States has a diagnosis of arthritis.

There are more than 100 types of arthritis, and it can occur in any joint within the body, including the elbow.

In this article, we examine elbow arthritis. We discuss the symptoms and types of elbow arthritis and how doctors diagnose and treat it. We also explore the other possible causes of elbow pain.

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There are a variety of symptoms relating to elbow arthritis.


Pain in the elbow may be the first sign of elbow arthritis. The pain is present in the joint, which indicates its association with arthritis.

The pain varies depending on the type of arthritis and may worsen with physical activity and over time.

A 2016 study found that arthritis pain had a negative effect on a person’s ability to carry out activities that they value and enjoy.


Some forms, such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, involve the breaking down of cartilage from the joints. Cartilage is the tissue covering the end of the bones that come together in the joint, allowing them to move freely.

When this cartilage breaks down, the bones can rub together, causing a buildup of fluid that results in swelling. However, swelling does not occur in all forms of arthritis.

Stiffness and limited range of motion

Stiffness of the joint is a common symptom of arthritis. The joint cannot move as easily as before, resulting in stiffness and a limited range of motion.


Crepitus is a term doctors use to describe a noise in the joint that sounds like:

  • popping
  • grinding
  • clicking
  • snapping

The sound may occur when a person moves the joint some or all of the time.

Crepitus may occur due to gas bubbles popping within the joints. It can range in volume and sometimes be loud enough for others to hear.

The following types of arthritis affect the elbow:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This chronic inflammatory condition affects various joints on both sides of the body. It often works symmetrically, so it will usually affect both elbows.
  • Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It causes cartilage to break down, resulting in the bones rubbing together. The cause of elbow osteoarthritis may be an injury or overuse of the joint.
  • Juvenile arthritis: This is a type of arthritis affecting children under the age of 16 years. It can affect various joints, including the elbow, but health experts do not know what causes the condition.
  • Psoriatic arthritis: This develops as a result of psoriasis, a skin condition resulting in rashes over the body. If psoriasis leads to psoriatic arthritis, a person may develop pain and swelling in any of their joints. This type of arthritis may affect 30% of individuals with psoriasis.

A doctor will discuss a person’s symptoms, medical history, and family medical history to help diagnose elbow arthritis.

Healthcare professionals may also perform a physical examination to evaluate a person’s:

  • pain
  • movement abilities
  • swelling
  • elbow stiffness

They may also look for signs of arthritis in other joints.

Doctors may order an X-ray to confirm a diagnosis of elbow arthritis. This imaging test allows doctors to see the bones more clearly and diagnose the specific type of arthritis.

If a person receives a diagnosis of elbow arthritis, a doctor will initially recommend the following pain management approaches:

  • over-the-counter pain (OTC) medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen
  • heat therapy
  • ice packs
  • gentle exercise

If OTC medications do not work to manage the pain, a doctor may prescribe stronger pain relievers.

Other home remedies may include:

If nonsurgical interventions do not help, a person may be eligible for surgery.

The least invasive surgical option is arthroscopy, which a person can receive as an outpatient. This process involves a surgeon using small incisions and tools to smooth out the joint and scrape off any damage. This process is known as debridement.

A person can receive elbow replacement surgery if debridement does not work or the condition is severe. Elbow replacement surgery involves a surgeon removing damaged parts of the joint and replacing them with artificial components. This surgery requires a longer recovery period than arthroscopic techniques.

Doctors may recommend a person with elbow arthritis perform the following exercises:

Elbow bend

  1. While standing, place both arms by the sides. A person could add a light weight.
  2. Bend one elbow and slowly bring the hand up to the shoulder, holding it there for 10 seconds.
  3. Return the arm slowly back to the side and repeat 10 times.

Wrist lifts

  1. While sitting or standing, bend the elbow at a right angle.
  2. Holding a light weight, bend the wrist slowly toward the body and slowly release.
  3. Repeat 10 times, twice a day.

Wrist flex

  1. Hold one arm straight out, pointing the palm downward.
  2. Gently bend the wrist downward and use the other hand to press the stretched hand back toward the body.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds, then stretch the wrist back out again.
  4. Bend the hand toward the body, using the other hand to keep it in place.
  5. Hold for 30 seconds.

Elbow pain may not always indicate elbow arthritis.

Other conditions which may cause elbow pain include:

Arthritis is a common condition that causes pain, swelling, and limited joint movement. The elbow can develop arthritis, and various forms of the condition exist.

A person may be able to treat arthritis at home with OTC medications and home remedies, including heat packs, ice, physical therapy exercises, and splints.

However, a person can receive corticosteroid injections if the condition is unmanageable. Surgery may also be an option, and a person may sometimes receive a complete elbow replacement.