Elbow joint effusion refers to swelling in the elbow joint due to a buildup of fluid. It results from inflammation and can happen for various reasons.

Possible causes of elbow joint effusion include a sprain, fracture, infection, overuse injury, arthritis, or an autoimmune disease. Treatment and recovery times depend on the cause.

In this article, learn more about why elbow joint effusion happens, what to do about it, and what to expect during and after recovery.

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An effusion is when fluid collects in the space around a joint. Elbow joint effusion refers to swelling in the elbow joint.

It can result from:

  • a traumatic injury leading to a sprain or fracture
  • overuse or repetitive actions, such as in sports
  • gout, osteoarthritis, and other types of arthritis
  • an infection, such as septic arthritis
  • autoimmune disease

In some cases, the swelling may disappear without treatment. However, medical treatment and intervention may be necessary to prevent either permanent damage or a worsening of the condition.

Elbow joint effusion is different from elbow bursitis. The bursa is the fluid-filled sac around the joint. When inflamed, this is known as bursitis.

Doctors can misdiagnose one condition for the other since the bursa is very close to the elbow joint.

Minor swelling often disappears without treatment, but more severe or persistent swelling may be a sign of an underlying problem, such as an acute or chronic health condition.

Acute (short-term) conditions, such as fractures and infections, can require urgent treatment. Chronic (long-term) conditions that can cause elbow joint effusion, such as arthritis, may not need immediate treatment.

However, over time, some of the long-term conditions that cause elbow joint effusion may eventually affect the joint, causing difficulty moving or pain. Similarly, continuing to use a joint with an overuse injury may also lead to symptoms worsening.

Anyone who experiences elbow swelling after a traumatic accident or who notices new or severe swelling should seek immediate medical advice. Additional symptoms that need urgent medical attention include:

  • severe pain
  • inability to move the joint
  • a fever and a hot feeling around the elbow, which could be a sign of infection
  • loss of a pulse
  • an open fracture or protruding bone
  • severe bruising, which can indicate internal bleeding

Symptoms of elbow joint effusion include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • difficulty moving the joint
  • bruising, in the case of a fracture or sprain

To diagnose elbow joint effusion, a doctor will likely:

  • ask about symptoms
  • ask about medical history and any recent incidents that could have triggered the swelling
  • examine the joint
  • order an X-ray, CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI
  • take a sample of fluid from the joint for testing, known as arthrocentesis or joint aspiration

If swelling occurs after a trauma, such as a fall, the joint may be broken. An X-ray can often confirm this, although some fractures may not show up on an X-ray. In these cases, a CT scan may be helpful.

If no trauma has occurred, a doctor may use a CT scan or arthrocentesis to help make a diagnosis. Arthrocentesis gives a sample of the fluid around the joint that doctors can analyze for signs of autoimmune disease.

Treatment of elbow joint effusion depends on the cause.


Depending on the severity of the fracture, a doctor may recommend:

  • using a sling or splint until it heals
  • taking pain medication to help manage discomfort
  • resting the joint and refraining from activities, such as heavy lifting
  • as recovery progresses, exercises to increase motion and rehabilitate the joint

It is essential not to move or exercise the joint until a doctor says it is safe to do so. Moving the joint may move the bones out of place.

In some cases, a person may need surgery to:

  • remove any fragments of bone from the joint
  • repair ligaments
  • use screws or plates to reestablish the joint
  • replace part or all of the joint

Learn more about bone fracture repair.

Overuse injury

For people with an elbow overuse injury, or tennis elbow, symptoms usually improve with:

  • rest
  • medication
  • physical therapy
  • checking any sports equipment to ensure it is suitable for the individual
  • using a brace
  • steroid injections, in some cases, to reduce inflammation

Other possible options include platelet-rich plasma injections and shock wave therapy. However, there is not currently enough evidence to prove these are safe or effective.

If symptoms do not improve in 6 to 12 months, a doctor may recommend surgery followed by rehabilitation. It can take 4 to 6 months to recover enough to resume strenuous activities.


People can often treat a soft tissue injury at home with RICE:

  • rest
  • ice, wrapped in a towel and applied for 10 to 15 minutes to the injury to reduce swelling
  • compression, such as a Tubigrip
  • elevation above shoulder level when possible

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may help manage pain and swelling. However, people should check with a doctor that it is OK to take these first.

Gentle exercise can help with rehabilitation.


If effusion is due to an infection, treatment may involve:

  • antibiotics
  • pain relief medication
  • arthrocentesis

Arthrocentesis is a minor surgical procedure in which a doctor uses a fine needle to remove fluid from the joint. This can help relieve discomfort and pain. The doctor may also send a sample of fluid to a laboratory for testing.

If there is a significant infection, a surgeon may need to remove infected or dead tissue. This is known as debridement.


Treatment depends on the type and severity of arthritis and other factors.

Options include:

  • resting the joint or using a support
  • practicing physical therapy exercises
  • applying heat or cold to relieve discomfort
  • taking NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen
  • receiving steroid injections, as appropriate
  • undergoing arthrocentesis, in some cases, to remove excess fluid
  • following drug therapy, depending on the type of arthritis

What are some ways to manage joint pain?

Recovery depends on the cause of the effusion as well as the severity of the cause. For example, a severe fracture that needs surgery may take up to 12 weeks to heal.

A sprained elbow usually recovers in around 6 weeks but may take longer. If a person has surgery, they will also need physical therapy during recovery.

Infections usually respond well to antibiotics, but the time needed to recover depends on the type of infection.

Elbow overuse injury improves with conservative treatment in 80% to 95% of cases. If a person needs surgery, it can take 4 to 6 months to return to activity, and there may be a permanent loss of strength.

Osteoarthritis, gout, and other types of arthritis are long-term conditions that need ongoing treatment.

Here are some questions people often ask about elbow joint effusion.

Can you have joint effusion without a fracture?

Yes. Other possible causes of a fluid buildup in the elbow include overuse injury, infection, arthritis, and autoimmune disease.

What happens if you do not treat elbow joint effusion?

In some cases, the swelling goes down over time with rest. In the case of a fracture or infection, however, symptoms may worsen and lead to severe complications. It is best to check with a doctor if anyone has concerns about a swollen elbow joint.

Elbow joint effusion is a swelling of the elbow joint from fluid buildup. Possible causes include a fracture or other damage due to trauma, overuse injury, a sprain, infection, or arthritis.

Treatment depends on why the swelling occurs. In many cases, a full recovery is possible. However, outcomes depend on the cause, the person’s age, and other factors.

Anyone with concerns about a swollen elbow joint should seek medical advice.