What Causes Elbow Pain? Everything You Need to Know

causes elbow pain

Your elbow allows you to swing, lift, throw, and more. You’re able to do all this because your elbow is more than just a simple joint. But that also means there’s plenty that can go wrong with it, and the causes of elbow pain can vary greatly.

The elbow is a joint where three bones come together. These bones are the humerus (the upper arm) and the radius and the ulna (the bones that make up your forearm).

There is cartilage at the end of each of these bones. This cartilage is what helps your bones absorb shocks and move against one another. If anything happens to any of these parts of your elbow, or to the blood vessels and nerves that surround them, you’re most likely going to experience elbow pain.

So what causes elbow pain? Continue reading and we’ll walk you through everything you need to know!

Medial Epicondylitis

Also known as golfer’s elbow, medial epicondylitis is a kind of tendinitis that occurs in the inside of the elbow. It takes place where the bony part of the elbow connects to the forearm muscle.

The job of the tendon is to attach bones to muscles. When you experience irritation or an injury, the tendons become swollen and painful.

Even though it’s referred to as golfer’s elbow, you don’t have to be a golfer to be affected by medial epicondylitis. This disorder can occur from pretty much any activity that involves the use of writs or arms, including baseball and tennis.

Symptoms of Medial Epicondylitis

Medial epicondylitis can develop slowly over time or it can take place suddenly. The symptoms can be mild but they can also become severe. People who are suffering from medial epicondylitis might notice:

  • stiffness in the elbow
  • numbness or tingling in the fingers
  • pain on the inside of the elbow
  • weakness in the wrist or hand
  • trouble with moving the elbow

It’s also common for the pain in the elbow to move down all the way to the wrist. This can make it harder to perform everyday tasks, such as giving a handshake, writing with a pen, or turning a doorknob. It’s usually the dominant arm that’s affected by golfer’s elbow.

Causes of Medial Epicondylitis

Golfer’s elbow is fairly common among athletes because it’s caused by repetitive motions. Tennis players who repeatedly use their arms to swing a racquet and golfers who repeatedly swing a club may develop medial epicondylitis. In both of these instances, overusing the wrist and arm can damage the tendons and lead to weakness, stiffness, and pain in the elbow.

Weightlifting, rowing, and playing sports like softball and baseball can also trigger medial epicondylitis. Typing at a computer and playing an instrument can also cause this kind of tendinitis.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If the pain in your elbow doesn’t get better then you should see a doctor. Your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history, pain level, symptoms, and any recent injuries. You’ll also be asked to give information about your daily activities too, including recreational activities, hobbies, and work duties.

Your doctor might perform a physical exam, which can include applying pressure to the elbow.

Home remedies are usually enough to improve medial epicondylitis. Because repeatedly using your affected arm can worsen your symptoms, it’s recommended that you rest your arm. After the pain goes away, you should ease back gradually into your daily activities.

Taking over-the-counter medications, like Tylenol and Advil, can reduce inflammation and swelling. Your doctor might also have you wear a brace in order to reduce muscle strain.

Applying ice or a cold compress can also reduce inflammation, pain, and swelling. A good rule of thumb is to apply a wrapped compress to the affected area for up to twenty minutes, three or four times a day.

You should also ask your doctor about safe exercises for strengthening and stretching your tendons. If you have numbness or weakness, you may be a good candidate for occupational or physical therapy.

Lateral Epicondylitis

Lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow, is a painful inflammation that’s caused by overuse of the elbow. This pain takes place on the outside of the elbow but can end up affecting the back of the forearm. You’re most likely to feel pain when you fully extend your arm.

If you’re suffering from tennis elbow, you’ll likely feel mild pain in the elbow that’s going to continue to get worse. You’ll also probably notice a weaker grip, pain when squeezing an object, and pain when trying to lift objects or open jars.

Lateral epicondylitis tends to occur when a specific muscle in the forearm – the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) muscle – becomes injured. This muscle is what helps you to raise your wrist.

When you overuse the ECRB, you can create very small tears in the tendons of that muscle at the spot where it connects to the outer elbow. These tears can cause pain and inflammation.

Activities like tennis, golfing, and frequent computer use can lead to tennis elbow.

Tennis elbow is often diagnosed during a physical examination. Your physician will ask you if you play any sports, what your job is like, and how your symptoms developed.

Then, they’ll perform a few simple tests to help come up with a diagnosis. Your physician might apply some pressure to the area where the bone connects to the tendon to check for pain. When the wrist is flexed and the elbow is straight, you’ll likely feel pain along the outside of the elbow as you straighten your wrist.

Your physician might also have imaging tests done, including an MRI scan or X-ray, in order to rule out other issues that can cause elbow pain.

Olecranon Bursitis

Olecranon bursitis is also known as draftsman’s elbow, miner’s elbow, and student’s elbow. Bursitis affects bursae which are little sacs of fluid that help keep your joints protected. Olecranon bursitis specifically affects the bursae that protect the pointy bone of your elbow.

You can get olecranon bursitis when you take a hit to the elbow or lean on it for an extended period of time. This disorder can also be caused by arthritis or infection.

People who have olecranon bursitis may notice pain, swelling, and trouble with moving their elbow. If it’s caused by an infection, the elbow might feel warm and appear red.

Elbow Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects cartilage. It leads to the cartilage wearing down and becoming damaged. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • pain
  • bone spurs
  • joint locking
  • joint swelling
  • stiffness
  • difficulty moving the joint
  • bone grating or scraping
  • joint instability

When your joints wear down, the cartilage that protects your bones gets destroyed. When this happens, your bones start to rub against each other. This can lead to the bones becoming painful, swollen, and deformed.

Fracture or Dislocation of the Elbow

Fracture of the elbow occurs when a bone breaks or cracks. Dislocation is when the bone moves from its normal position. Symptoms can include pain, difficulty moving the join, discoloration, and swelling.

A doctor can move a dislocated bone back into place. They’ll put the affected elbow in a cast or splint, and give you medication for swelling and pain. Physical therapy can help restore your range of motion after the cast or splint is taken off.

Ligament Sprains and Strains

Ligament issues can take place in any of the ligaments that are in your elbow joint. Sprains to the ligament can occur from repeated stress or trauma. The ligament can become stretched, partially torn, or fully torn.

When you injure your ligament, you might hear a popping sound.

Symptoms of a strain or sprain can be elbow pain, swelling, joint instability, and issues with range of motion. Treatment for ligament sprains are usually physical therapy, icing the area, rest, and bracing the elbow.

Have you ever heard of Tommy John Surgery?  Or do you even remember Tommy John?  Tommy John was an American Baseball pitcher, who had a very successful career as pitcher.  He then tore his medial collateral ligament of his elbow.  He was the first baseball player to undergo successful ligament reconstruction with a tendon, and ended up returning to pitch about 164 more baseball games.  The surgery became dubbed Tommy John Surgery because he was the first professional pitcher to undergo such a procedure.  Many pitchers since then have had the procedure done.  Due to the stressors of that ligament from throwing high velocity balls, the ligament can tear.

Osteochondritis Dissecans

Also known as Panner’s disease, osteochondritis dissecans occurs when little pieces of bone and cartilage become dislodged in the elbow joint. It usually happens after a sports injury to the elbow and is most often seen in young men.

Tenderness and pain on the outside of the elbow, difficulty with extending the arm, and stiffness in the joint can indicate that you have osteochondritis dissecans. Bracing the elbow and undergoing physical therapy can help to treat this injury.

How Are Elbow Disorders Diagnosed?

Your physician can diagnose elbow disorders in a variety of ways. These can include:

  • X-rays
  • MRI scan
  • biopsy of bursa fluid
  • physical exam
  • CT scan
  • electromyography (EMG)

Treatment can vary depending on the symptoms and elbow disorder that you experience. Many elbow disorders only require conservative treatment. Surgery is used only as a last resort if your symptoms don’t get better.

Your treatment options can include:

  • rest
  • physical therapy
  • steroid injections
  • ice
  • immobilization or braces
  • elbow padding

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are also a popular method of treatment.

Elbow Pain Exercises

Depending on what causes your elbow pain, exercise might be able to help you recover and stop the condition from recurring. Stretches and exercises can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. They can also strengthen muscles around the joint which can help to prevent future injury.

One of these types of exercises is eccentric exercises. This allows the muscles to lengthen under tension. These exercises can reduce pain in people who have tennis elbow.

During eccentric exercises, the muscle elongates as it’s activated. When you perform a bicep curl, the force to bring a dumbbell down to your quadricep from the shoulder is an eccentric movement.

Isometric exercises also might help. With these exercises, you tense up your muscles and contract without visibly moving them. These exercises are especially useful for people who are in great deals of discomfort and pain.

Strength training and water exercises can also be helpful in reducing osteoarthritis pain.

How to Prevent Elbow Disorders

The majority of elbow disorders are caused by injury and overuse. There are a few things that you can do in order to make sure that you avoid an elbow disorder.

For athletes, it’s very important that you correct any improper sports techniques. When you use sports equipment, you want to have a proper-sized grip and use correct tension on racquets.

Always make sure that you stretch and warm up before engaging in physical activity. You should also wear elbow padding if you’re worried about elbow injuries.

It’s also important to remember to take breaks from tasks that are repetitive. And you should regularly practice exercises that can help strengthen the muscles around the elbow joint.

The Importance of Knowing What Causes Elbow Pain

Hopefully, after reading the above article, you now have a better understanding of what causes elbow pain. As we can see, there are a variety of factors and disorders that can lead to inflammation, discomfort, and pain in the elbow. But by understanding the common causes of this pain, you can more quickly identify the problem and correct it.

Also, you should now be able to better avoid and prevent yourself from experiencing elbow pain in the future.

Our elbows help us to accomplish a variety of important tasks. By watching out for them, you’ll be saving yourself from making your everyday life more difficult and frustrating than it has to be.

Are you currently experiencing elbow pain? If so, then feel free to contact us today and see how we can help you!

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