Elbow Pain


Elbow pain, a common disorder affecting people of all ages, can manifest due to a range of conditions, spanning from minor injuries like sprains to chronic conditions such as arthritis. It can be a sharp, sudden pain or a dull, persistent ache that worsens over time. The pain, its exact location, and accompanying symptoms can provide valuable clues about the underlying cause.

Understanding elbow pain involves recognising the complex structure of the elbow. The elbow joint is where three bones in your arm meet: your upper arm bone, called the humerus, and the two bones in your forearm, called the radius and the ulna. A thick layer of tissue, cartilage for cushioning, muscles for movement, and tendons and ligaments for stability surround it. Any issue with these components can lead to elbow pain.

This comprehensive guide will delve into the causes, symptoms, and treatments of elbow pain, offering insights to help manage this condition effectively, restore functionality, and maintain quality of life.

Understanding Elbow Pain

Tennis ElbowPhoto Credit: Canva

Elbow pain refers to any form of discomfort or unpleasant sensation experienced in or around the elbow joint. The pain can arise from issues involving the bones, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, or muscles of the forearm.

  • Common Causes: Common causes of elbow pain include overuse injuries (such as tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow), arthritis, fractures, and bursitis.
  • Related Symptoms: Symptoms associated with elbow pain can include tenderness, stiffness, swelling, and difficulty in bending or straightening the arm.
  • When to Seek Help: It’s essential to seek medical attention if your elbow pain doesn’t improve, if you have severe pain, swelling and stiffness, or if your symptoms don’t improve with home treatment.

Common Cause of Elbow Pain (Overuse Injury)

Several factors, including injury, overuse, and certain health conditions may cause elbow pain.

  • Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis): Tennis elbow affects the tendons on the outside of the elbow and is often the result of overuse or repetitive motion, particularly in racquet sports. Degeneration or inflammation of the tendons may cause tennis elbow pain.
  • Golfer’s Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis): Similar to tennis elbow, the golfer’s elbow affects the tendons on the inside of the elbow. It’s common among golfers but can also affect people performing activities that require repetitive arm or wrist motion. Golfer’s elbow pain may result from injury to the elbow tendons or muscles.
  • Osteoarthritis (OA): This common form of arthritis can affect any joint, including the elbow, leading to pain and stiffness due to the wear and tear of the cartilage and bone. Elbow OA may cause joint pain and swelling.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): This common form of arthritis can affect any joint, including the elbow, leading to pain and stiffness due to the wear and tear of the cartilage and bone.
  • Fracture or Sprain: An injury to the elbow, such as a fracture or sprain, can cause severe pain, swelling, and difficulty in moving the elbow. Pieces of bone may become displaced or ligaments can be stretched or torn, resulting in elbow pain and swelling.

Types of Elbow Pain

Elbow pain can be categorised based on its cause. Here are some of the most common types of elbow pain:

1. Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)

Tennis elbow is a condition that causes pain around the outside of the elbow. It often occurs after strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint. Despite its name, you don’t have to be a tennis player to suffer from tennis elbow. Any activity that involves repetitive twisting or gripping can lead to this condition. Tennis elbow pain relief may involve rest, pain medication, and strengthening exercises.

2. Golfer’s Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis)

Golfer's ElbowPhoto Credit: Canva

Golfer’s elbow is similar to tennis elbow, but the pain is felt on the inside of the elbow. It’s often caused by overuse of the muscles in the forearm that allow you to grip, rotate your arm, and flex your wrist. Repetitive flexing, gripping, or swinging can cause pulls or tiny tears in the tendons, leading to pain and inflammation. Rest, pain relief, and strengthening exercises can help relieve the golfer’s elbow pain.

3. Olecranon Bursitis

Olecranon bursitis, also known as “student’s elbow,” is a condition characterised by swelling, redness, and pain at the tip of the elbow. The condition occurs when the bursa, a small sac of fluid that helps to lubricate the elbow joint, becomes inflamed. Treatment for olecranon bursitis involves pain relief, rest, and sometimes draining the fluid from the bursa.

4. Arthritis of the Elbow

Arthritis of the elbow can occur due to many types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and psoriatic arthritis. It causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and a decreased range of motion in the elbow. Treatment for elbow arthritis may include pain relief, medication, physical therapy, and, in severe cases, surgery.

5. Elbow Sprain

An elbow sprain is an injury to the ligaments that hold the elbow joint together. It can cause pain, swelling, and a loss of strength in the elbow. An elbow sprain may result from a fall, a direct blow to the elbow, or a twisting injury. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE), along with pain relief and rehabilitation exercises, are commonly used for elbow sprain treatment.

6. Elbow Fracture

An elbow fracture is a break in one or more of the bones that make up the elbow joint. This can cause severe pain, swelling, and an inability to move the elbow. Elbow fractures often result from falls, accidents, or a direct blow to the elbow. Treatment for an elbow fracture may include pain relief, immobilisation with a cast or brace, and, in severe cases, surgery to realign the bones.

Each type of elbow pain has distinct symptoms, causes, and treatment options. If you’re experiencing elbow pain, getting a proper diagnosis is essential to ensure appropriate treatment. Always consult with a healthcare professional for persistent or severe elbow pain.

Symptoms of Elbow Pain (Elbow Conditions)

Elbow StiffnessPhoto Credit: Canva

The symptoms of elbow pain can vary depending on the underlying cause.

  • Pain and Tenderness: One of the most common symptoms is pain around the elbow joint, which can range from a mild ache to sharp, severe pain. Elbow pain relief can be achieved through various treatment approaches.
  • Stiffness: People with elbow pain often experience stiffness, especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity. Stretching and range-of-motion exercises can help reduce elbow stiffness.
  • Swelling: Swelling and inflammation around the elbow joint are common symptoms, particularly in cases of injury or inflammatory conditions like arthritis or bursitis. Ice packs and anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce swelling.
  • Reduced Range of Motion: Difficulty in bending or straightening the arm, or a feeling of ‘locking’ in the elbow joint, can also occur. Physical therapy and exercise can improve elbow flexibility and range of motion.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options of Elbow Pain (Elbow Injury)

Elbow PhysiotherapyPhoto Credit: Canva

Diagnosis of elbow pain usually involves a physical examination, medical history, and sometimes imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs. The treatment for elbow pain depends on the diagnosis and the severity of the pain.

  • Rest and Physiotherapy: Initial treatment often involves rest, physical therapy, and exercises to strengthen the muscles around your elbow and improve flexibility. Strengthening exercises can help alleviate elbow pain.
  • Medication: Over-the-counter and anti-inflammatory pain relievers can help reduce pain and swelling. Pain relief medication may be prescribed for more severe cases.
  • Surgery: In severe cases or when conservative treatments fail to provide relief, surgical intervention, including joint replacement, may be necessary.

Elbow pain is a common condition that can impact daily living. It’s essential to seek accurate diagnosis and treatment to manage pain and joint stiffness, and prevent further complications. Regular exercise and taking care of your joints can also help prevent it.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Elbow Pain

What does elbow tendonitis feel like?

Elbow tendonitis, commonly called lateral elbow tendinopathy or tennis elbow, typically presents as a slow onset of dull, sore pain around the outer part of the elbow. The discomfort might extend into your forearm and wrist. Pain can be triggered or worsened by repetitive activities, particularly gripping or lifting objects, and might be more prominent when you wake up. Pain relief measures such as rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications can be helpful.

What is the most common cause of elbow pain?

The most common causes of elbow pain are tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow. These conditions occur due to overuse or strain on the tendons of the elbow, often due to repetitive motions. Other common causes include arthritis, bursitis, fractures, sprains, and nerve entrapment. Identifying the specific cause is crucial for determining the appropriate treatment.

How do I know if my elbow pain is serious?

Elbow pain is considered serious if it is associated with severe pain, significant swelling, an inability to move the elbow, an obvious deformity, or any signs of an infection, including fever, redness, and warmth. If the elbow pain is due to an injury, such as a fall or a direct blow, and these symptoms are present, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. A healthcare professional can perform a thorough examination to determine the extent of the injury and recommend appropriate treatment.

How do you relieve elbow pain?

Treatment for elbow pain depends on the cause. However, general measures to relieve elbow pain include rest, applying ice to the area, over-the-counter pain relievers, and using a brace or splint. For certain conditions, physical therapy and specific exercises may help. If these conservative measures do not provide relief, your healthcare provider may recommend other treatments, such as steroid injections or, in severe cases, surgery. Always consult with a healthcare professional for persistent or severe elbow pain.