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4 most common causes
What is an elbow injury?
Elbow injuries can be caused by a trauma, like falling on your elbow or outstretched arm or from being hit in the arm. The elbow can also be injured from repetitive use, which can happen if you play certain sports (golf, tennis) or if you have a job that requires you to bend and straighten your arm often, like painting or working on an assembly line.
The muscles and tendons that move your wrist start at the elbow. So when your elbow hurts, consider that it may be because of your wrist and not the elbow itself. —Dr. Ben Schwartz
What it feels like
Traumatic elbow injuries usually cause intense pain right away and make it difficult to move the elbow. Dislocations and some fractures can also cause the elbow to look deformed or out of place.
Minor traumatic injuries may cause a deep ache or pain with pressure in the injured area. You may be able to move the elbow but not fully straighten or bend it. Bruising or swelling may occur but not right away.
Repetitive stress injuries to the elbow often cause aching pain and tenderness. Certain motions, like bending or straightening the wrist, may make the pain worse. The inside or outside of the elbow may be swollen and sore to the touch. Lifting objects or turning a door knob may also cause pain on the inside or outside of the elbow. In some cases, your wrist may feel weak or painful when you lift objects.
If you have a traumatic elbow injury from a fall or a direct hit to the area, go to an urgent care center or the ER. If you can’t bend or straighten your elbow without severe pain or if the elbow looks out of place or deformed, you will likely have X-rays taken to check for a broken bone or dislocation of the elbow.
With less severe injuries or a repetitive stress injury, you can often relieve these symptoms with at-home treatment, but you may need to go to the doctor if the pain doesn’t go away.
Discussing the prognosis of your particular injury with the doctor can help you understand the timeline to get better. This helps reduce the frustration you may feel if your elbow is slower to heal than you would like. —Dr. Schwartz
1. Broken elbow
Your elbow can break if you fall directly on it or onto an outstretched arm. Older people may be at higher risk of elbow fracture from even a minor fall if they have a history of osteoporosis (weakening of the bone). Pain caused by a broken elbow is usually severe and immediate, and you may have trouble bending or straightening the elbow.
Uncommon: Fractures of the point of the elbow (olecranon) make up 10% of upper extremity fractures in adults [Source: Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research].
- Sharp pain
- Limited motion of the elbow
- Elbow deformity
Treatment and urgency: Severe injuries, where the elbow is deformed or you’re in too much pain to move the elbow, require a visit to an urgent care center or the ER. You may be able to see an orthopedic doctor for milder injuries, where you have pain after a fall but can still move the elbow. Some elbow fractures can be treated by wearing a sling or splint, while others may need surgery.
2. Elbow dislocation
Elbow dislocation is when the bones of the elbow joint are partially or completely separated.
It usually occurs from a fall onto an outstretched arm. Certain sports and activities increase your risk of dislocating your shoulder, like football and rollerblading.
Uncommon: The elbow is the second most commonly dislocated joint in the body, but overall dislocations are not very common [Source: National Institutes of Health].
- Severe pain
- Unable to move the elbow
- Forearm or wrist pain
- Numbness and tingling in the fingers
- Elbow deformity
Treatment and urgency: Dislocated elbows must be treated right away and require a visit to the ER. If X-rays confirm the dislocation, the elbow is popped back into place (reduced or reduction) while you’re under sedation. Most elbow dislocations can be reduced in the ER, but some need to be repaired with surgery.
3. Elbow ligament tear
Elbow ligaments are fibrous tissue that attach bone to bones. The most common elbow ligament tear is the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), which is on the inside of the elbow. It can be caused by a fall and often happens if you fracture your elbow. Baseball pitchers are at greater risk of tearing the UCL because the throwing motion puts stress on the inner elbow.
Uncommon: Elbow ligament tears are most common in baseball pitchers due to the stress pitching causes on the inside of the elbow.
- Pain on the inside of the elbow
- A feeling of instability in the elbow
- Numbness and tingling of the fingers
Treatment and urgency: Elbow ligament injuries usually don’t require a trip to the ER, but you should see an orthopedist or an athletic trainer (if you’re a professional baseball player) to check on the severity of the tear Some UCL tears require reconstructive surgery, but most can be treated with rest, OTC anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil), and bracing. It may take 6–12 weeks for a sprain to heal, but it can take 6–12 months for a tear to heal. It can take 12–15 months for baseball pitchers to return to the sport.
4. Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis)
Tennis elbow is caused by repetitive movements of the wrist, which create stress on the tendons on the outside of your elbow. As the name suggests, tennis elbow is caused by playing tennis and other racquet sports, including badminton, squash, and racquetball. People who have jobs that involve repetitive wrist movement—like painting, carpentry, and typing—can also get tennis elbow.
Common. Tennis elbow affects 1–3% of adults every year [Source: The American Journal of Sports Medicine].
- Dull, aching pain on the outside of the elbow
- Pain that occurs when you turn a doorknob, shake hands, or hold a cup of coffee
- Weakness in the wrist and forearm
Treatment and urgency: Treating tennis elbow includes rest, ice, and NSAIDs. You should avoid playing racquet sports until the pain lessens (tennis elbow usually improves with 6–8 weeks of treatment). If the pain lasts longer, see your healthcare provider. They may recommend physical therapy, wearing a brace, or getting a cortisone injection. In rare cases, surgery may be needed.
5. Golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis)
Golfer’s elbow affects the tendons on the inside of your elbow and is less common than tennis elbow. Golfers get it, but it can also affect baseball pitchers and weightlifters. Using certain tools, like chainsaws and axes, can also lead to golfer’s elbow.
Uncommon: Golfer’s elbow affects about 0.4% of the population [Source: National Institutes of Health].
- Pain on the inside of the elbow
- Pain that travels to the forearm or wrist
- Difficulty gripping heavy objects
Treatment and urgency: Treatments for golfer’s elbow include rest, taking NSAIDs, and applying ice to the elbow. It can take several weeks to feel better. If the pain continues, see a healthcare provider, who may recommend physical therapy, bracing, or a cortisone injection. Golfer’s elbow rarely requires surgery.
Activities like painting, carpentry, writing, and typing can all lead to developing tennis elbow. Simple, everyday movements—like opening a door, lifting a cup, or even grabbing a sheet of paper—can aggravate tennis elbow symptoms. —Dr. Schwartz
Treatments for elbow injuries vary depending on the type of injury you have. If you have a severe injury that requires immediate medical attention (broken elbow, dislocated elbow), you may need to:
- Wear a splint or sling (for broken elbow)
- Have the elbow reduced—popped back into place (for a dislocated elbow)
- Have surgery (for both conditions)
You can often care for causes of elbow injuries that aren’t emergencies yourself by doing the following treatments:
- Applying ice to the elbow
- Taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
- Wearing a brace
You may have to do these treatments regularly for 6–8 weeks to improve or relieve your symptoms. If your pain lasts longer than that, see a healthcare provider. You may need cortisone injections, physical therapy or, if you have an elbow ligament tear, surgery.
How do I know if my elbow injury is serious?
A break (fracture) or dislocation of the elbow usually cause severe elbow pain that may travel into the forearm or hand. Moving the elbow may be very painful or impossible, and the elbow may be swollen or appear deformed. In some cases, you may notice numbness or tingling in the fingers. If you fell on your elbow or wrist and have severe pain with limited range of motion, go to an urgent care center or ER for X-rays.
What is the most common elbow injury?
The most common elbow injury is tennis elbow, which is caused by repeated bending of the wrist. Tennis elbow is an overuse injury, meaning that it’s caused by repetitive motion and not a traumatic injury. Tennis elbow most commonly occurs in people 40–49 years old.
How is an elbow injury diagnosed?
Elbow injuries caused by a trauma are diagnosed by taking X-rays. This imaging test can show if any of the elbow bones are broken and can also confirm an elbow dislocation. In some cases, a CT scan may be necessary to check for a hairline crack in the bone or to get a better sense of the severity of the injury.
Repetitive elbow injuries like golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow are mainly diagnosed based on your symptoms and a physical exam.
Can an elbow injury cause wrist pain?
Injuries to the elbow can cause pain at the wrist. This may be referred pain, which radiates from the elbow to the forearm and wrist. Because the two forearm bones (the radius and ulna) are part of both the wrist and elbow joints, moving an injured elbow can also cause wrist pain as the two bones rotate against each other. There is also a ligament that connects the two forearm bones and runs from the elbow to the wrist. You may have wrist pain if this ligament is damaged or torn when you injure your elbow.
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