Elbows are complicated joints and when things go wrong, it can really impact our daily lives. Find out the top causes of elbow joint pain in this guide.
Our elbows are a vital part of our bodies. They allow us to throw, lift and swing and that’s just for starters. However, as we use them for so much, it’s only natural that things can go wrong from time to time. Luckily, most elbow joint pains have a simple and straightforward cause with overuse being the most common, and with some rest and ice, it can be cleared up within a few days. However, sometimes pain in your joint could be a sign of an underlying condition such as arthritis.
Before we get down to the types of elbow joint pain you may experience, it’s useful to understand exactly how the elbow works.
The elbow joint is where the long bone at the top of your arm (humerus), meets your two forearm bones, the radius and the ulna. Each clever little joint has cartilage on the end which assists the bones with sliding against each other, as well as shock absorption, and everything is held into place with tissues called ligaments. Then, the tendons connect your bones to the muscles, which allows you to be able to move your arm.
Your elbow is known as a hinge joint as it allows you to bend your arm. Amazingly, the top of your radius can also rotate, which is what allows you to twist your forearm!
There’s a lot to your elbow, so you can see how if one little thing goes wrong, it can alter your ability to move it and result in a lot of pain.
9 top causes of elbow joint pain
There are numerous conditions that can affect your elbow ranging from simple injuries to long-term ailments, here’s some of the most common causes of elbow joint pain:
One of the most common causes of elbow joint pain is arthritis. There are several different types which can affect it, including:
This is the rarest form of arthritis to impact the elbow joint and it only tends to happen if you’ve previously injured it. Osteoarthritis starts with cartilage loss (that thin protective layer that covers the bones in the joint), then the body can grow bony spurs in the joint and increase the fluid. This condition typically happens with little symptoms, but it can sometimes cause pain, swelling and stiffness. Medication and physical therapy will generally be recommended to treat osteoarthritis and in more severe cases, a joint replacement may be necessary.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that can result in elbow joint pain and swelling. The joint may become red, hot, stiff and tender too. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for this but early treatment in the form of medicine, lifestyle changes and surgery, alongside ongoing support can help to reduce the risk of further joint damage.
Psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune condition that’s associated with psoriasis. Symptoms can include red patches of skin, raised bits with white or silver flakes and pain and swelling around the joints. Treatment usually includes non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biological therapies.
Gout is another form of arthritis that can cause sudden pain and swelling of the elbow, but it can also impact other joints too. Gout is caused by a build-up of urate crystals in the joint which can be very painful and result in red and/or shiny skin. This arthritis form comes on in attacks which usually last between 5 to 7 days, then will improve again. The attacks will usually be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, but if the pain and swelling doesn’t improve, steroids may be given too.
Dislocated elbows are surprisingly common and occur when a bone moves from the position it’s supposed to be in, generally this is due to a fall or impact. Symptoms can include a visual difference in the shape of your elbow, discolouring, impaired movement and pain. If your elbow joint pain is due to a dislocation, you’ll need to see a healthcare professional to pop it back into place. Following this, it may be necessary to have a splint or a cast and medication for the pain.
Ligament sprains tend to be due to trauma or repeated stress. The ligaments can be stretched or torn (partially or completely) and you might hear a popping sound when it initially happens. This form of elbow joint pain is very painful and you may experience unstable joints, swelling and issues with movement. The treatment for ligament sprains involves a combination of rest, ice, a brace and physical therapy may be necessary.
Also known as medial epicondylitis, golfer’s elbow got its name as the repetitive downward swing of a golf club is one of the biggest causes of the condition. The condition impacts the inner tendons of the elbow causing pain, and movements of the wrist in particular may trigger it. In order to recover from golfer’s elbow, you’ll need to rest, ice the area and you may also wish to take over the counter medications such as ibuprofen.
Olecranon bursitis has many names including: student’s elbow, miner’s elbow and draftsman elbow. This issue affects the small sacs of fluid which help to protect the joints (known as bursae) and can be caused by a variety of things from a blow to the elbow, leaning on it for prolonged periods of time, infection to arthritis. If your elbow joint pain is due to this you may experience swelling, pain, difficulty with movement and it may also be red or warm if there’s an infection. To treat olecranon bursitis, you’ll likely require medication and elbow pads, however surgery may be required in more serious cases.
If one of the bones break at the elbow, it results in a fracture. The most common cause of this type of injury is sudden impact which may be due to a sports injury or car accident. If you suspect your elbow joint pain is due to a fracture or break, go to A&E immediately for treatment.
Stress fractures are when a small crack forms in one of the bones in your arm, which is usually a result of overuse and when it occurs in the elbow it’s most common with throwing athletes such as baseball pitchers. The pain generally worsens over time and will get worse with use. The best treatment is rest, however if the pain is too severe or is present even when resting, consult your doctor.
Lateral epicondylitis impacts the tendons outside the elbow and it’s a big issue for those than play racquet sports, hence the more common name of tennis elbow, but it can also impact cooks, builders, mechanics, plumbers and painters too. Symptoms of this condition may include a burning pain outside the elbow and it can also affect your grip. To treat tennis elbow, your doctor will likely recommend a combination of rest, a brace or tennis elbow strap and physical therapy.
Osteochondritis dissecans is also known as panner’s disease and it’s caused by pieces of cartilage and bone becoming dislodged in the elbow joint. Generally the result of sports injuries, this form of elbow joint pain can display symptoms such as tenderness to the outside of the elbow, difficulty extending the arm and a sensation of your joints locking. It’s highly likely you’ll be referred to a physical therapist to treat this disease and will need to rest and not move the joint.
If you suspect that you’ve broken or fractured your elbow, you’re experiencing severe pain or your elbow physically doesn’t look right, go to A&E for emergency treatment.
For elbow joint pains that don’t go away with rest and ice, or if there’s intense pain, swelling, bruising, redness, or issues with mobility, consult your doctor as they’ll carry out a thorough examination and recommend appropriate treatment.
That’s our guide on the top 9 causes of elbow joint pain and the current treatment options. Want to find out more about the causes and symptoms of joint pain? Read our article, next.
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