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What’s Causing My Elbow Pain? Elbow Pain Symptoms & Treatment

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Last updated February 2, 2021

Elbow pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Your elbow pain is normal and unlikely to be caused by a serious illness. If the elbow pain becomes severe, see a physician to diagnose your elbow pain symptoms.

Elbow pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Elbow pain symptom checker

Elbow pain symptoms

You probably don't give your elbows much thought until you lean on them too long or bump into something. However, if you're suddenly experiencing pain while lifting grocery bags or reaching for your phone, it's time to explore the cause of your elbow pain.

The elbow is a hinge joint that allows the back and forth movement of the arms. The smooth surface found on the bottom of the humerus bone also allows us to rotate our forearms. Like any joint, inflammation is a typical cause for discomfort. This can be caused by injury or infection.

Common characteristics of elbow pain

If you're experiencing elbow pain, it can likely be described by:

  • Swelling
  • Elbow redness
  • Warmth
  • Issues with range of motion
  • Locking sensation and grating sound in the elbow: Experienced during movement
  • Joint instability

The elbow is a complicated joint with plenty of areas for issues and injuries are not uncommon. If you are young and otherwise healthy, elbow pain symptoms will usually resolve on their own. If you're a bit older, elbow pain can signal joint damage that needs to be addressed.

Causes of elbow pain

In younger people, trauma is a common cause of elbow pain that will require time and rest to heal. In older people, more serious causes can be to blame. These are just some of the many causes of elbow pain. Most elbow pain is due to overuse or strains, usually related to work, sports, or accidents, and resolve on their own.

Traumatic causes

Causes of elbow pain related to trauma include the following.

  • Dislocated or fractured elbow: If one of the bones that form the elbow breaks or becomes displaced, you will feel excruciating pain.
  • Sprain and strains: A stretched or torn muscle or ligament can cause pain.
  • Bursitis: Bursa are small, fluid-filled sacs inside the joints that help cushion bones, tendons, and muscles. They can swell with repetitive movements and cause pain.
  • Tennis or Golfer's Elbow: Both are types of tendonitis

Infectious causes

Elbow pain may be due to an infectious process.

  • Cellulitis: Inflammation of the skin due to an infection can cause pain and swelling. The most common pathogens include Streptococcus and Staphylococcus.
  • Septic Arthritis: Infection of the elbow joint with bacteria is commonly seen in people with compromised immune systems, diabetics, and IV drug abusers. Symptoms include pain, swelling, and limited range of motion. This is a serious medical issue.

Medical causes

Elbow pain may be due to an underlying condition.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This is the most common kind of arthritis affecting the elbows. The body's immune system attacks its own tissues, causing swelling and pain.
  • Osteoarthritis: Cartilage in the elbows breaks down as you age. Bones start to rub together, causing stiffness and pain.
  • Gout: An increased amount of uric acid in the body builds up crystals in your tissues, which can be very painful.
  • Osteochondritis dissecans: This is common among kids and teenagers, in which part of the bone near the elbow dies. Cartilage breaks off as well, causing pain during movement.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Elbow sprain

An elbow sprain is an injury of the tendons or muscles of the elbow.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: elbow pain, elbow pain from an injury

Symptoms that always occur with elbow sprain: elbow pain from an injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Elbow pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Elbow pain symptom checker

Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis)

Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is an inflammation of the tendons that connect the muscles of the forearm to the side of the elbow.

It is caused by using the arm in repetitive motion, such as swinging a tennis racquet. The forearm muscles become weakened and damaged from overuse, putting strain on the tendons.

Most susceptible are people over 30 who work using overhead motion of the arm. Auto mechanics, painters, carpenters, and butchers are often affected, as well as anyone playing racquet sports,.

Symptoms begin gradually and consist of burning pain on the outside of the elbow, with loss of grip strength.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination with simple neurological tests that use the forearm muscles, such as shaking hands. X-rays or MRI may also be ordered.

Treatment involves rest; nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers; physical therapy; an arm brace just below the elbow; and sometimes steroid injections. Surgery is rarely needed.

Using the right equipment, as well as proper technique for overhead motions of the arm, can help prevent the condition.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: elbow pain, pain in one elbow, hand weakness, pain in the thumb side of the elbow, elbow pain from overuse

Symptoms that always occur with tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis): elbow pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis)

Medial epicondylitis (Golfer's Elbow) is similar to it's opposite cousin (Lateral Epicondylitis- Tennis Elbow). Both are caused by the overuse of the elbow, but this one is more frequent in golfers, bowlers, archers, and weight lifters.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: elbow pain, pain in one elbow, elbow pain from overuse, pain in the pinky side of the elbow

Symptoms that always occur with golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis): elbow pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Elbow (olecranon) bursitis

Bursae are small fluid-filled sacks located around the body in strategic locations to provide a cushion and help reduce friction. Olecranon bursitis, or elbow bursitis, is an inflammation of the bursa right on the angle of the elbow, causing pain.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: pain in one elbow, swollen elbow, warm and red elbow swelling, elbow pain from an injury, elbow bump

Symptoms that always occur with elbow (olecranon) bursitis: swollen elbow

Urgency: Self-treatment

Overuse elbow injury related to throwing motion

Overhand throwing places extremely high stresses on the elbow. In baseball pitchers and other throwing athletes, these high stresses are repeated many times and can lead to serious overuse injury.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, shoulder pain from overuse, pain in one elbow, elbow pain from overuse, pain in the pinky side of the elbow

Symptoms that always occur with overuse elbow injury related to throwing motion: pain in one elbow, elbow pain from overuse

Urgency: Self-treatment

Elbow dislocation (radial head subluxation)

Radial head subluxation is a partial dislocation of a bone in the elbow called the radius. Dislocation means the bone slips out of its normal position.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: pain in one elbow, swollen elbow, difficulty moving the elbow, holding arm close to body because of pain, elbow pain from an injury

Symptoms that always occur with elbow dislocation (radial head subluxation): pain in one elbow

Symptoms that never occur with elbow dislocation (radial head subluxation): elbow locking

Urgency: In-person visit

Ulnar nerve entrapment of elbow

Ulnar nerve entrapment of elbow is also called cubital tunnel syndrome. The ulnar nerve begins at the spinal cord in the neck and runs down the arm into the hand. This very long nerve can become compressed, or entrapped, by other structures at certain points along the way. Entrapment often happens in the cubital tunnel, which is the narrow passage at the inside of the elbow.

The exact cause for entrapment may not be known. Fluid buildup and swelling inside the elbow; previous elbow fracture or dislocation; or leaning on the elbow for long periods of time can put pressure on the ulnar nerve inside the cubital tunnel.

Symptoms include numbness and tingling of the hand and fingers, sometimes leading to weakness and even muscle wasting in the hand.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-ray, and nerve conduction studies.

Treatment begins with wearing a supportive brace and adjusting activities to avoid further irritating the nerve. Surgery is usually not needed unless the nerve compression is causing weakness and loss of use in the hand.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand, pain in one elbow, pain in one forearm

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Rheumatoid arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att..

Elbow pain treatments and relief

There's usually no need to rush to the doctor for elbow pain symptoms. But if you're experiencing extreme pain or are unable to move your arm, see a physician.

When to see a doctor

You should also see a doctor if the following apply:

  • There is an obvious deformity in the surrounding bones or joint
  • A bone is protruding
  • The pain is so severe you are unable to focus on anything else

Treatment options

Depending on the extent and severity of the elbow pain symptoms, you may consult an orthopedic specialist or try the following home remedies first.

  • RICE method: If the pain is due to an injury, rest the elbow. Try putting ice on the area for about 20 minutes and repeat three times daily. Compress it, but not too tightly, by putting on an elastic bandage. Elevate the upper extremities above the heart level.
  • Medications: Elbow pain can be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, analgesics, and other OTC pain relievers. Cellulitis or abscesses of the elbow usually require antibiotics.
  • Devices: A cast, brace, or sling can help.

Elbow pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Elbow pain symptom checker

FAQs about elbow pain

What causes elbow pain?

Elbow pain is most frequently caused by overuse. Repetitive motions of the hand, arm, or wrist can lead to a strain or small tear of one of the ligaments of the elbow. A sprain is a partial tear of a ligament while a fracture is a break in a bone. Sprains and tears trigger inflammation, which heightens pain sensitivity in proportion to the amount of damaged tissue. Common types of elbow injuries include repetitive use injuries like tennis elbow and golfer's elbow, inflammation of the joint (bursitis), and osteoarthritis.

What is tennis elbow?

Tennis elbow, or epicondylitis, is an injury of the tendon that connects the muscles of the outer forearm to the bone on the outside of the elbow. It is caused by repeated flexion of the muscles along the forearm, along with wrist rotation, which is a common motion for tennis players. This motion places tension on the tendon and can lead to gradual damage, causing pain and inflammation.

Is arthritis common in the elbow?

Arthritis can occur in the elbow and may manifest as an inflammation of the joint capsule and inability to straighten the elbow, elbow swelling, and elbow pain. Arthritis is most common in the hand, wrist or foot, but can progress to affect the elbow as well. It can often be managed by physical therapy, over-the-counter pain medication, and altering regular activities that strain the elbow.

How do you treat arthritis in the elbow?

Multiple types of arthritis can affect the elbow, including arthritis from infection (bacterial arthritis) and other inflammatory conditions. Treatment of arthritis depends on the cause and how far the disease has progressed. Infections must be treated first and any damage can be addressed with physical therapy if it is mild. If arthritis is from an inflammatory process, anti-inflammatory compounds, immunomodulatory drugs, and biologics may be necessary.

What is a bone spur in the elbow?

A bone spur, or osteophyte, is a growth of bone. Bone spurs can sometimes occur in the elbow and cause a decrease of motion, pain with movement, or swelling as the bone spur is bumped or undergoes trauma. Bone spurs can be due to trauma or normal bodily processes. They can be surgically removed or shaved down if they become too bothersome.

Questions your doctor may ask about elbow pain

  • How would you explain the cause of your elbow pain?
  • Do you currently smoke?
  • Where does your elbow hurt most?
  • Do you work with your hands for a lot of the day? (e.g. at a computer, doing manual tasks, etc.)

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Elbow pain statistics

People who have experienced elbow pain have also experienced:

  • 11% Forearm Pain
  • 9% Shoulder Pain
  • 9% Pain In The Upper Arm

People who have experienced elbow pain were most often matched with:

  • 33% Elbow Sprain
  • 33% Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)
  • 33% Golfer'S Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis)

People who have experienced elbow pain had symptoms persist for:

  • 39% Over a month
  • 20% Less than a week
  • 18% Less than a day

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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