A carpenter, a chef, and a professional baseball player all walk into a bar. And they all complain about their aching elbows.
While professional athletes blame elbow problems for 26% of all sports injuries, sore elbows is a common complaint among normal Americans, too. From painters to professional golfers, everyone is at risk of developing an elbow injury.
Pain in the elbow is no joke. Your elbow plays a major role in most arm, wrist, and hand movements. It is a crucial joint that helps you do numerous activities. From lifting objects to hugging, your elbow is a very involved body part.
What causes elbow pain, and how can you manage the discomfort it causes? Let’s dive into the common culprits of elbow injuries and ways to heal your injuries.
What Causes Elbow Pain?
Since we rely so heavily on our elbows, there’s an increased risk for elbow pain and injuries. Before you can manage your discomfort, you need to identify the cause of your elbow pain.
The elbow may appear small, but it’s made from three bones. It includes the humerus, the radius, and the ulna. These bones work together to allow your elbow to hinge.
Muscles attached to the outside of the humerus are for straightening your wrist and fingers. These muscles are connected to our brains through the radial nerve, which travels along the outside of the elbow. The radial nerve is very sensitive. That’s why hitting your elbow produces sharp pain and tingling sensations.
Most elbow injuries occur to the tendons and ligaments that connect the elbow bones. The ulnar collateral ligament is a fibrous tissue that connects the humerus to the forearm bones. The tendon is vulnerable, so when it tears, you feel intense pain.
Tendon and ligament tears are very common athletic injuries. Repetitive movements strain the forearm muscles and tendons, creating long-term discomfort and inflammation.
Inside Elbow Pain
Medial epicondylitis, or Golfer’s Elbow, irritates the inner side of the arm and elbow. It’s caused by repetitive twisting and flexing of the wrist.
Golfers elbow is a common golf injury, but it can happen to anyone who overuses their inner elbow muscles and tendons. Inside elbow pain is also caused by:
- Baseball or softball
- Carpentry and painting
- Playing musical instruments
Golfer’s elbow makes it painful to lift the wrist or hand. A person may experience tingling sensations when twisting their forearm or making a fist. You may notice the inside of your elbow looking swollen or bruised. You may also experience weak hands, stiff elbows, and wrist pain.
Outside Elbow Pain
Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is one of the most common musculoskeletal conditions. An estimated one in three people suffers from tennis elbow at any given time.
Tennis elbow results from repetitive motions in your elbow’s tendons. Tennis elbow starts slow, causing mild discomfort on the outside of your elbow and forearm. As time passes and you continue to use your arms, the pain increases.
Outside elbow pain causes weak grip strength, sharp twinges, and numbness in the fingers. Even when the elbow is at rest, a person may experience a dull ache on the outside region of their forearm.
Overusing the outer elbow creates microscopic tears in the tendons. Poor fitness levels and incorrect weightlifting form can also injure the outside elbow muscles.
Tennis elbow is common in tennis players, who repetitively use their forehand and backhand muscles. But outside elbow pain has no limitations. Carpentry, cooking, painting, raking, gardening, and cutting wood are common causes of tennis elbow.
Your olecranon bursa is a thin, fluid-filled sac. It’s located at the tip of your elbow, called the olecranon. Bursae cushion bones and soften the surrounding tissues. They contain lubricating fluid to allow soft tissue to move freely over the underlying bone.
Elbow bursitis occurs when the olecranon bursa gets irritated or inflamed. The result is limited mobility and intense elbow pain.
Elbow bursitis can occur after a hard blow to the tip of the elbow. It can be due to long periods of pressure, such as leaning on hard surfaces. Plumbers and HVAC technicians who crawl on their knees and lean on their elbows are prone to developing elbow bursitis.
Infections and autoimmune disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis and gout, result in elbow bursitis. If an elbow infection breaks the skin, bacteria can inflect the bursa sac and create swelling.
Approximately 1.3 million Americans are living with rheumatoid arthritis. RA affects many different joints, including the elbow. It creates inflammation, stiffness, and limited mobility around the sore elbow.
Early stages of RA produces pain when people lift or strain the elbow. As the severity of RA increases, some patients experience persistent throbbing pain in their elbow. Over time, RA creates chronic inflammation that damages elbow joint tissues and can lead to bone erosion.
In about 25% of RA patients, nodules will appear around the elbow. The lumps develop beneath the skin and can occasionally be painful.
Dislocation and Elbow Fractures
Elbow fractures result from direct impact or twisting the arm. Falling is the number one cause of elbow fractures. When a person loses their balance, they often extend their arm to brace the fall. The result is twisting or trauma to the elbow bones.
When a fracture occurs, the bones move out of place. Elbow fractures cause pain, swelling, bruising, and stiffness in the elbow and forearm. More severe fractures create numbness in the hands, fingers, and wrists.
Diagnosing Elbow Pain
If elbow pain persists and makes completing daily tasks a challenge, then it’s time to seek medical help.
A doctor will diagnose elbow disorders by first conducting a physical examination. They will inquire about your medical history, exercise routines, and occupation to determine the cause of your discomfort. The physical exam can identify where the pain is stemming from.
For more severe elbow injuries, a doctor may use x-rays, CT scans, or MRIs to locate the problem. If your doctor suspects elbow bursitis, they may conduct a bursa fluid biopsy. During the biopsy, a doctor will extract a sample of tissue or cells and analyze it for illnesses or cancers.
Elbow Pain Treatments
For most minor elbow injuries, rest, ice, stretching, and using an elbow brace are the most effective treatments. Taking frequent breaks to prevent overstraining elbow muscles can prevent and decrease elbow joint pain.
Wearing a strap or brace around your forearm when performing forearm activities reduces inflammation and lessens pain. An elbow brace lowers pressure on your tendons and gives your arm muscles extra support.
If these methods of healing pain in elbow don’t work, you may try medicine, injections, exercises, and elbow surgery.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, also known as NSAIDs) decrease pain and swelling around the elbow. Examples include ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen.
The drugs aren’t as much as a treatment method as they are pain relievers. Some doctors will recommend using them to decrease elbow pain at work or while you sleep. NSAIDs should be used in combination with other effective treatments.
Severe elbow pain may call for a steroid joint injection.
Steroids are manmade versions of hormones produced by the adrenal glands. When injected into a joint or muscle, steroids decrease inflammation, pain, and stiffness.
For managing elbow injuries, a steroid injection is inserted directly into the painful area of your elbow. Steroid injections provide effective short-term pain relief, but they aren’t ideal long-term results.
Physical therapy improves the strength and flexibility of forearm muscles. It aims to reduce pain, increase mobility, and create more resilient arm muscles to prevent future elbow injuries. Physical therapy improves blood flow to the tendons to boost healing.
Ongoing physical therapy is recommended for rheumatoid arthritis patients who continue to suffer from chronic forearm pain.
Below are examples of various physical therapy exercises and stretches used to treat elbow injuries.
Hold a small ball in your hand (such as a tennis ball). Squeeze the ball continuously 25 times. Switch hands and repeat. If the ball causes elbow pain, use a sponge or balled-up socks.
Hold your arm by your side and bend your elbow to form an L. Face your palm up and gently turn your wrist so it faces down. Hold the position for 15 seconds. Repeat three to five times.
Pull your fingers close together, and put a rubber band around them. Slowly move your thumb and fingers open, then close. Repeat 25 times, doing the exercise three times a day. If it’s too easy, use two rubber bands.
Wrist Flexor Stretch
Extend your arm with your palm facing up. Bend your wrist and point your hand to the floor.
Use the opposite hand to bend your wrist until you feel a forearm stretch. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat up to four times per arm.
Surgery is done when rest and rehabilitation do not work. The most common arm surgeries are shoulder procedures. Elbow surgeries only account for 3,000 procedures per year, compared to 53,000 annual shoulder surgeries.
Most surgery patients endure six months to one year of pain in their elbow joints. Doctors may recommend elbow surgeries for patients who cannot perform at their jobs due to their injuries.
Surgery for elbow injuries includes:
- Cutting the elbow tendon
- Removing inflamed tissues from the forearm
- Reattaching tendon tears
Elbow surgeries are commonly conducted using a scope with a few small incisions. The surgeon may also opt for open surgery, in which the doctor makes one large cut above the elbow bone to remove damaged tendons. The doctor will determine the best course of action depending on your injuries.
A synovectomy removes the elbow’s synovium. This is the membrane lining your elbow joints. This surgery is common in RA patients who suffer from inflamed synovium that causes widespread inflammation.
During arthroscopic surgery, the surgeon makes a few tiny cuts in the skin along your elbow. They send a camera into the hole to get a good look inside your arm. The surgeon removes damaged tendon pieces and reattaches the healthy parts back to the bone.
All elbow surgeries are closed using stitches or staples. The patient will need to cover the area with a bandage until the skin heals. Most patients can leave the hospital the same day as the surgery.
Preventing Elbow Pain
For preventing elbow injuries and strains, follow the PRICE method. PRICE stands for:
Protect your elbow from injuries by practicing proper weightlifting and exercise forms. Elbow exercises and stretches keep your arm’s muscles strong and reduce your risk of an injury.
Rest your elbow by avoiding or reducing the activity that caused it. If your elbow pain is a result of your occupation, set reminders to take breaks during the workday to prevent overstraining.
Ice your elbow for 15 to 20 minutes three times per day. Ice reduces bruising and inflammation. If you continue to use your elbow a lot, icing it can prevent another injury from occurring.
Compression bandages lower swelling. They reduce pressure and help the blood return to your elbow.
Elevation also stimulates blood flow and lowers inflammation in the elbow.
Get the Pain Relief You’re Looking For
Elbow pain is debilitating. It can prevent professional athletes from performing and hinders employees from accomplishing their duties.
Elbow pain can stretch from your forearm to your fingers, so it’s essential to receive proper treatment. Ignoring the pain can lead to long-term problems and may call for surgery.
If you’re looking for elbow pain relief, you’re at the right spot. We have multiple locations and are one of the most trusted hand and finger specialists around. Contact our team here and start healing your body.