9 Signs Your Elbow Pain Needs to Be Checked Out

elbow pain

The elbow is a complex joint designed to complete a wide range of dynamic movements. But, as with a lot of our body’s most essential and hard-working components, we often forget about how much we use our elbows.

Until, that is, we start to experience elbow pain.

Elbow injuries are actually a lot more prevalent than many people realize. Tennis elbow is one of the most common elbow conditions, affecting up to 3 percent of Americans and as many as 50 percent of tennis players. But, whether you’re playing tennis, another sport, or completing everyday tasks, your elbow’s complexity means that a lot of different elements have to work together. And that means that there’s a lot that can go wrong.

So, what are some of the telltale signs that your elbow problems aren’t something you can ignore? Keep reading to learn when to see a doctor about your elbow pain.

1. You Experience Severe Pain When Moving Your Elbow

Our various arm joints are susceptible to injury because of their many moving parts. Plus, we all bang or knock our elbows from time to time. This means that the odd twinge after a heavy workout or a dull ache from knocking your elbow on the door aren’t uncommon. But experiencing elbow pain every time you move your arm is not normal.

There are no hard and fast rules about how long you should wait or when to see a doctor about your elbow pain. But if the pain continues for more than a week or gets worse when you do certain activities or movements, it’s definitely time to seek help.

Depending on the exact location and type of pain, you could have any one of several different elbow conditions, including tennis elbow, a stress fracture, or a disease such as arthritis. Your doctor will then be able to proceed with the appropriate elbow pain treatment, which could involve anything from physical therapy and ultrasounds to elbow surgery.

2. You Have Constant Elbow Pain

Elbow pain when moving your arm is bad enough. But if your elbow is in constant pain, even when you’re not using it, this is a definite sign that something is very wrong.

This kind of ongoing pain even when resting your arm likely means that wear and tear following years of repetitive use is the cause. Although, certain diseases such as arthritis, lupus, gout, and Lyme disease can cause pain in your elbow joints as well as other parts of your body.

To determine what could be behind your constant elbow pain, you’ll need to see a doctor right away. They’ll then be able to check for other signs of diseases and elbow injuries and give you a clear idea of the reason your elbow hurts so much, as well as how to stop the pain.

3. Your Elbow Pain Doesn’t Improve With Rest and Ice Therapy

Sprains, strains, bursitis, and many other causes of elbow problems are often easy to resolve with pain medication, rest, and ice. Often, your doctor will recommend that you try these methods first before rushing into other elbow pain treatment options.

Although, if you continue to experience the same level of elbow pain even after rest and ice therapy, it’s clear that you may need more complex medical intervention. Depending on the cause of your elbow injury, this could mean physical therapy, steroid injections, or even elbow surgery.

4. There Is a Lump on Your Elbow

If you’re experiencing pain and notice an obvious deformity around your elbow joint, you need to seek emergency care. These deformities might include a lump near your elbow joint, a protruding bone, or some kind of other swelling or irregularity.

A lump on your elbow like this could be the result of a badly-healed broken bone, a dislocated elbow joint, a skin growth, such as a tumor, or inflammation. Inflammation might be from a sports injury, a sprain, arthritis, infection, tendinitis, or bursitis, while a growth could be cancerous. Although bone tumors on the elbow are rare, seeing your doctor is the only way to rule this out.

In short, these aren’t the kind of elbow problems you should ignore so make sure to get any lumps, growths, or other similar issues checked out as soon as possible.

5. You Have Limited Range of Movement

The way your elbow moves and flexes allows you to complete a range of upper-body movements such as lifting, throwing, pushing, and pulling. But if you can’t move your elbow at all, or your elbow movements are becoming stiff or restricted, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

You may be experiencing a temporary limited range of movement while your elbow joint heals and recovers. Or, you might find that moving your arm in certain ways is difficult due to one of many possible ongoing elbow conditions. Either way, seeing a specialist will help you determine the cause of your restricted range of movement as well as the most suitable elbow pain treatment to help resolve the issue.

6. Lifting, Gripping, and Grasping Are Difficult or Painful

Finding it difficult or painful to lift and grip objects can be a sign of damage to your tendons. As the internal connections of your elbow weaken, this puts the area under strain and makes it hard to use the muscles as before. People with tennis elbow, for example, often start to experience a weakening grip and find it painful to lift even light objects such as a cup or book.

Whether you have tennis elbow or some other condition, it’s vital to see your doctor for a diagnosis. They’ll be able to recommend the most effective elbow pain treatment for you as well as ways to avoid further injury and discomfort.

7. You Have Severe Swelling or Bruising On Your Elbow Joint

Bruising around your elbow is usually a sign of a minor injury during a fall. Elbow contusions can lead to temporary pain and swelling, but this kind of elbow injury often resolves itself before long. For minor bruising, rest and ice tend to be sufficient to relieve your pain and aid recovery.

That said, if it is very painful and the swelling is severe or you have extensive bruising around your elbow joint, this isn’t something you should ignore. Likewise, if your elbow becomes more swollen over time, this is a bad sign. The swelling can make it difficult to see what’s happening, but your doctor will be able to check whether you have olecranon bursitis, a fracture, break, or some other kind of injury to your elbow.

8. You Experience Numbness or Tingling in Your Elbow Joint

Numbness or tingling in your elbow joint can occur after banging your ulnar nerve, aka your “funny bone” or after sleeping in an uncomfortable position.

But if you experience a tingling sensation or numbness that doesn’t go away, it’s time to get your elbow checked out by your doctor. Not least because this could be cubital tunnel syndrome, or ulnar neuropathy, caused by a pinched ulnar nerve. Elbow pain treatment options such as anti-inflammatory medications, splinting your elbow, and physical therapy can help. But, if left untreated, ulnar neuropathy can cause muscle weakness or permanent injury to your arm.

9. You Hear Cracking or Popping Noises When Moving Your Elbow

Crepitus is the official name for the popping, crackling, or clicking noises you hear when bending your knees, elbows, and other joints. These sounds are usually harmless as they are nothing more than the sound of air moving in the joint.

That said, if you notice crepitus when bending your elbow and it’s accompanied by pain, this can be a sign of wear and tear or injury. Crepitus that is painful may become worse over time so you should see your doctor to discuss this. Bracing and physical therapy often help to reduce both the crepitus and the pain, although you may also need surgical treatment.

The Most Common Types of Elbow Injuries

The location and type of elbow pain you’re experiencing often signifies which of the four anatomic regions of the elbow (anterior, medial, lateral, or posterior) has sustained an injury.

During the consultation with your specialist, they’ll likely ask you questions about the onset of pain to understand more about the possible cause of your elbow injury. These might include what you were doing when the pain started and the type and frequency of any physical activities you take part in, whether recreational or occupational.

Here are some different types of elbow injuries that could be at the root of your pain and what can cause them:

Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is a painful condition that affects the outer top side of the forearm, near the elbow. Other signs of tennis elbow include forearm weakness and pain when gripping objects.

The cause of the pain is usually inflamed extensor tendons. These connect the elbow joint to the forearm muscles, and may become strained or weakened due to consistent overuse and trauma through activities such as playing tennis, cooking, or carpentry. That said, a compressed nerve can also cause tennis elbow, so it’s important to see your doctor for a specific diagnosis and proper tennis elbow pain treatment.

Golfers Elbow

Medial epicondylitis, otherwise known as golfer’s elbow, is another of the most common elbow conditions. Although it often affects golf players, tennis and baseball players are also prone to golfer’s elbow, as are painters, computer users, and plumbers.

Golfer’s elbow is a form of tendinitis that causes pain around the inside (medial side) of the elbow. The pain is often a result of damage caused to the flexor carpi radialis and the pronator teres tendons. These tendons are responsible for wrist flexion, pronating the forearm, and assisting the flexion of the elbow joint.

Ulnar Neuropathy

As mentioned above, ulnar neuropathy causes numbing, tingling, and pain around the elbow joint as a result of a pinched ulnar nerve. You may also experience hand weakness as well as numbness  and gradual contracting in your fingers.

Ulnar neuropathy is most common in cyclists, computer users, and people who use tools like jackhammers. A broken elbow, a blow to the elbow region, or even leaning on your elbows for a prolonged period can also trigger the condition. This is because the tissues surrounding the ulnar nerve can become inflamed and swollen in response to injury.

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injuries

The ulnar collateral ligament complex is on the inside of the elbow. Damage to this area often occurs due to repeated stress from overhead movements. For this reason, those who practice sports involving overhead throwing, such as javelin and baseball, are more likely to experience ulnar collateral ligament injuries and the resulting elbow pain than most.

Olecranon Bursitis

Olecranon bursitis is a common cause of posterior elbow pain and swelling. It occurs when the bursa sacs that help keep your joints smooth become irritated, inflamed, or overused. This condition also increases the potential for infection in the bursa. If this happens, your elbow will feel warm and may start draining away pus.

Bursitis often happens to joints used for frequent repetitive motions, such as those used in many sports. Olecranon bursitis can also be caused by trauma, such as breaking or falling on your elbow, or long periods of leaning on your elbows.

It’s Time to Get Your Elbow Pain Checked Out

We use our elbows for everything from brushing our teeth and typing to playing sports like basketball and tennis. This makes any kind of difficulty or discomfort in this multifunctional and hard-working joint seriously debilitating.

Not all elbow pain is an immediate cause for concern. But ongoing or constant pain – and especially if it’s combined with issues such as swelling, a lump, or numbness – is a sure-fire sign that you need to see your doctor right away.

If you’re plagued with problems and pain in your elbow, it’s time to put your health in our hands. Here at Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas, we offer diagnosis and treatment for hand, wrist, and elbow problems, using the most advanced and least invasive medical techniques. Contact us today to schedule an appointment with Texas’ leading specialists.

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