Elbow joint pain has several potential causes and many of them relate to sporting injuries or overuse, such as tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow. Other sources of pain in the elbow joint can come from the ligaments and bursae that surround the joint.
Underlying conditions that may cause this pain can range in severity. Both the cause and severity can affect how a person treats the condition.
This article reviews the various causes, treatments, and management for some conditions that affect the joint of the elbow.
Conditions that cause elbow joint pain can also cause additional symptoms. These symptoms can include:
- loss of movement
- limited range of motion
Depending on the cause, the symptoms can last between a few days to 2 years.
Also called tennis elbow, lateral epicondylitis is a type of tendinitis. It affects the tendons on the outside of the elbow.
Although it can affect anyone, people who make repeatedly make the same motion have a higher risk of developing the condition. This can include people who play sports involving rackets, chefs, and auto workers.
The pain associated with lateral epicondylitis may feel like burning on the outside of the elbow. It may also affect a person’s grip.
Treatment typically involves a combination of the following:
- medications, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- physical therapy
A person may find relief when they rest or use a brace.
Also called golfer’s elbow, medial epicondylitis is another type of tendinitis that affects the inner tendons of the elbow. It typically occurs due to overuse associated with loaded gripping, forearm pronation, or wrist flexion.
In sports, it often happens to golfers and pitchers. Carpenters and other occupations that use repetitive motions also have a
The pain typically occurs along the inside of the elbow and movement of the wrist may trigger pain.
Treatment often requires minimal intervention that may include:
Sprains can affect the ligaments connecting to the elbow. Ligaments play a role in connecting the bones of the upper arm to the lower arm.
The strain can occur when the elbow twists or bends quickly or forcefully.
Symptoms can include:
- a snapping or popping sensation
- trouble bending the elbow
Treatments can vary depending on the severity of the strain or sprain.
Some treatment options include:
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It occurs for a number of reasons, including wear and tear, injury, or genetics. Although osteoarthritis is less likely to affect the elbows, it can affect any joint in the body.
It can cause pain, swelling, and stiffness. It may also cause a limited range of motion or difficulty moving the elbow.
Treatments for osteoarthritis of the elbow can include:
- doing strength exercises
- taking NSAIDs
- reducing strain on the joint
- bracing the elbow
- getting rest
- using creams
- using prescribed injectable steroids
Surgery may be an option if other nonsurgical methods do not work.
Olecranon bursitis affects the bursae of the elbow, located on the backside of the olecranon bone. Bursae are fluid-filled sacs that provide additional cushioning to joints and help with smooth movements.
Bursitis is inflammation of the bursae. It is associated with painful movements on the back of the elbow and limited mobility. It is
Treatment can vary depending on the severity of the inflammation and whether it is associated with an infection. Non-infection-related bursitis
A person may also benefit from steroid injections and the use of braces. A doctor can help an individual determine the best treatment plan for their situation.
If an infection is present, a person may need antibiotics. If the swelling continues to come back, the person may need to have the bursa drained or even surgically removed.
Blunt force trauma can cause the bones in the elbow to fracture or break. A fall, sports impact, car accident, or other blunt force trauma can cause a fracture to occur.
When this occurs, a person
- severe pain
- inability to move the joint
- tingling or numbness sensation
Treatment can vary based on the severity and the location of the fracture.
It often involves a cast and may require realignment of the bones in the joint. In
Osteochondritis dissecans occurs when cartilage and a thin layer of bone separate from the rest of the bone. It causes a small piece of bone to become loose in the elbow.
In some cases, a person may not experience any symptoms and it may heal on its own. In other cases, it can cause symptoms such as:
- decreased range of motion
The underlying cause of osteochondritis dissecans in most cases is not known.
Treatment can vary. For mild cases, treatment may involve rest and avoiding physically demanding sports or activities.
Splinting or bracing the elbow may help with healing.
In some cases, a doctor may recommend surgery to remove the piece of bone.
Depending on the underlying cause, a person may be able to treat elbow joint pain at home. Common injuries, like tennis elbow, may only require rest and over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications.
Other therapies a person can try at home include:
- hot or cold therapy
- topical creams or ointments
- strength or stretch exercises
- assistive devices like splints or braces
A person should contact a doctor if the pain does not improve with home remedies after 2 weeks or if symptoms are severe.
A person should seek emergency medical attention if they experience trauma to their elbow that causes severe pain, swelling, or bruising.
A doctor will likely review:
- the person’s symptoms
- activities a person may do
- when the pain gets worse or gets better
They will also likely assess the strength of the elbow and if certain movements or pressure cause pain.
They may also order X-rays to check for arthritis or a loose bone in the elbow. In less common cases, they may order other imaging tests to try to diagnose the underlying cause of the pain.
Several underlying conditions can cause elbow pain. Many of the conditions relate to sports or overuse injuries.
In many cases, home treatment options — like rest, ice, and OTC medications — can help. Some people may need to seek help from a doctor or go to the emergency room for urgent medical attention.