Elbow pain

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 10, 2015
StartSymptomsElbow pain

Elbow pain is a condition that can be caused by either injury or disease. The elbow is susceptible to injury or disease because of its constant usage.


What is Elbow pain?

The elbow is composed of tendons, ligaments, muscles, bone, cartilage, and fluid. It is composed of three bones that meet to form a hinge joint. This enables the forward and backward movement of the arm. It also enables the arm to move inward and outward.

The outer bump on the elbow is known as the lateral epicondyle. It refers to the tendons that hold the back muscles of the forearm. These muscles are responsible for the upward movement of the wrist. The inner bump next to the elbow is known as the medial epicondyle. It holds the front muscles of the forearm and also enables the upward movement of the wrist. Overlying the elbow is the bursa. This is a sac full of fluid that prevents friction to joints.


One of the causes of elbow pain is inflammation of the tendons. Tennis elbow, referred to as lateral epicondylitis, is one injury that causes this inflammation. This happens when the outer tendons to the elbow are injured. These tendons are the outer bump next to the elbow bone. Research shows this area has poor blood supply, making it prone to injury.

Golf elbow, known as medial epicondylitis, describes injury to the inner tendons next to the elbow. The overall term that refers to inflammation of the tendons is Tendinitis. While tennis and golf are games that can cause these injuries, tendinitis can be caused by various activities like gardening, pitching and throwing, carpentry, house chores, skiing and any activities that may cause overuse of the elbow.

Elbow pain can also be caused by conditions that affect the elbow like Radiohumeral bursitis. This is inflammation of the bursae, the fluid-filled sacs. It can be caused by the overuse of the elbow joint or by trauma to the joint. Osteoarthritis is another condition that can affect the joint. It can cause the cartilage to become brittle, split and even break away leading to inflammation. Nerve entrapment and irritation, fractures and sprains can also cause elbow pain.

When to see a doctor

While the elbow is sometimes capable of healing itself, other cases require medical attention. Blunt trauma to the elbow may demand a trip to the doctor. If the elbow is swollen or red and fever accompanies these symptoms, medical attention may be necessary. One should seek medical counsel if a severe injury has caused the elbow to lock up or if he or she has a case of tendinitis that does not improve with home care support.

Attention should also be sought if there is a deformity in the elbow or a bone is protruding. In cases where a child does not want to use their arm, or is complaining of elbow pain, it will be important to seek medical attention. Children can experience elbow injury when the elbow is dislocated sometimes as a result of forceful tugging. One should also seek medical counsel if pain is persistent even when the elbow is not in use,or when mobility of the arm is prevented by pain in the elbow joint.

Treatment & Therapy

The first treatment options to consider are home based therapies. Types of first aid include applying a cold pack on the affected elbow to ease the pain. Stopping the injurious activity and immediately resting the elbow is recommended. A bandage to bind the elbow helps keep it immobile. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) will come in handy to reduce the swelling. These include Aspirin, Ibufrofen and Naproxen. NSAID’s do not require prescriptions and can therefore be used during home care. Acetaminophen may help reduce pain. However, these drugs only provide relief and not a cure to the cause of the pain or inflammation.

If inflammation has persisted for more than six weeks, a doctor may prescribe steroid injections. They offer relief swiftly and rarely have adverse side effects. Physiotherapy is also used to aid in the recovery of elbow pain. This is used to help return mobility to the elbow. It strengthens the tendons through everyday stretches as advised by the therapist. Light weights or resistance bands can also be used to empower the group of muscles surrounding the elbow. Acupuncture is used many times in combination with physiotherapy and seems to help some people gain relief.

Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) is a new treatment that involves enriching a blood sample with platelets. This enriched blood is then injected into the ailing elbow. This treatment can bring fast relief from pain and encourage swift healing.

Surgery is an option that is approached as a last resort to resolve fractures. Keyhole surgery can be done to remove the broken pieces of cartilage caused by arthritis. When it comes to treating bursitis, draining the sac of fluid encourages healing. In extreme cases, the sac is removed.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

To prevent elbow injury, proper technique is required when playing sports and accomplishing tasks that put the elbow at risk or strain the tendons. Strengthening the major muscle groups in the arms, shoulders and back helps to support the elbow and prevent injury.

Athletes are advised to warm up and stretch before and after engaging in sporting activities. For activities like rollerblading or skateboarding protective gear such as elbow pads may help prevent injury. When performing repetitive activities that use the elbow, alternate between two hands if possible.

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