Elbow Pain Causes
As with other joints, injuries to the elbow can result from overuse or a blow, fall or other sudden trauma. Regardless of the cause, the result can be pain and difficulty doing daily activities. Here are some of the more common elbow injuries that cause elbow pain.
Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis).
This is a term for a condition in which the tendons that join the forearm muscles at the elbow. They become inflamed and painful due to overuse. As the name suggests, playing tennis is a common cause of the condition. However, other activities that involve repetitive use of the elbow also can lead to tennis elbow.
Although any of the three bones that meet to form the elbow can break, the most easily fractured bone of the elbow is the olecranon, the point that sticks out when you bend your elbow at a 90-degree angle.
Distal humerus fracture.
A fracture of the lower end of the upper arm bone where it meets the radius to form the elbow is called a distal humerus fracture. This type of fracture is not common, but can occur as the result of a direct blow to the elbow or from falling with an outstretched arm.
Inflammation of the bursa at the tip of the elbow can cause pain, swelling and stiffness of the elbow. Bursitis can have a number of causes, including a blow to the elbow, prolonged leaning on the elbow on hard surfaces, infection or medical conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and gout.
Biceps tendon tear.
When tendons that attach the biceps muscle at the front of the upper arm to the bones in the elbow are torn, rotating the arm to make the palms face upward becomes difficult or impossible. Biceps tendon tears can occur when the elbow is forced to straighten against resistance.
A dislocation is a separation of the joint surfaces where they normally meet. While dislocations of the elbow are less common than those of some other joints, they can occur as the result of a force sent through the arm, such as falling on an outstretched hand. Elbow dislocations can be complete, meaning the joint surfaces are completely separated, or partial. A partial dislocation also is called a subluxation.
Elbow Pain Care
Within 48 hours of an elbow injury, you should also begin self-care measures. Use the acronym RICE to help remember these treatments:
- Rest. Take a break from activity. Avoid using your injured elbow.
- Ice. Place an ice pack on your elbow for 15 to 20 minutes at a time to reduce pain and ease swelling.
- Compression. Compress the elbow with an elastic bandage to help reduce swelling.
- Elevation. As much as possible, keep your elbow elevated higher than your heart. Place your elbow on a pillow(s) alongside you when you sit or lie down.
Whether you have an acute injury or chronic arthritis, medications don’t always relieve pain completely. At times when you need extra help with pain relief, recovery or help with daily activities, here are some techniques and devices worth trying.
Hot and cold.
While cold is helpful for reducing inflammation from a new elbow injury, it also can be helpful for chronic pain or for the pain and inflammation of an arthritis flare. For aching elbows without acute inflammation, heat may provide relief.
Physical therapy may be helpful for strengthening the muscles around the elbow and maintaining joint range of motion. Your doctor also may prescribe physical therapy for some elbow injuries, such as tennis elbow, or to help in recovering from elbow surgery. Following a program of physical therapy after a tendon injury can help strengthen and lengthen the tendon to prevent further injury.
Braces and splints.
Different types of braces and splints can take pressure off damaged tissues and permit healing. One of the most common is a “counterforce” brace for tennis elbow. Worn around the forearm just beneath the elbow, this brace can relieve tendon pressure during activities that involve twisting the arm.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
A technique in which a weak electric current is administered through electrodes placed on the skin, TENS is believed to stop messages from pain receptors from reaching the brain. It may be useful for short-term pain control in some people with elbow pain.
Or neuromuscular electrical stimulation around the elbow may be useful for strengthening the muscles that support the joint and relieving pain in and around the joint. Electrical stimulation is often used on the knee, but is also a widely used treatment for tennis elbow.
Many devices are available to make these activities easier, including reachers, zipper pulls, long-handled brushes or sponges and specially designed adaptive clothing. You can buy many assistive devices through medical supply stores and specialized mail-order catalogs. Talk to your doctor and physical and/or occupational therapist about using these assistive devices.