What Causes Joints to Pop? Elbow Popping Explained
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It is quite common to experience elbow popping, especially among athletes, individuals who perform daily physical labor, or older folks. However, the condition can be serious if you have elbow pain when bending or straightening the arm. Causes of elbow popping include trauma to the elbow like a sprain or fracture, lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow), or inflammation of elbow tissue. Read below for more causes, related symptoms, and treatment options.
Common elbow popping symptoms
Everyone experiences joint popping or clicking from time to time. Occasional, painless sounds are normal, but if the clicking, popping, or snapping is persistent and accompanied by discomfort or pain, you'll want to see a medical provider for a specific diagnosis. These sounds that joints make are sometimes called crepitus.
Common characteristics of elbow popping
If you experience elbow popping, it may be described by:
- Clicking or popping sounds when trying to use the elbow
- A locking or catching sensation in the joint
- Feeling that the elbow is unstable, wobbly, or may pop out of place
Common accompanying symptoms
You may experience your elbow popping while doing certain activities, such as the following.
- When pushing yourself upward by your arm: Such as when you get up from a chair
- When stretching with your arm above your head
Who is most often affected by elbow popping symptoms?
The following people are more likely to experience elbow popping.
- Athletes in training: Especially those who use an overhead throw or swing
- Anyone routinely working in physical labor
- Older people: Especially those who have had many years of wear-and-tear to the structures inside the elbow
Is elbow popping serious?
The severity of elbow popping is ultimately dependent on the cause.
- Not serious: Occasional pops or clicks without pain are rarely serious.
- Moderately serious: If the pain becomes chronic without improvement, it should be seen by a medical provider because it will interfere with activities of daily living.
- Serious: Severe pain with an inability to use the elbow joint can be the sign of a serious injury.
Why does my elbow pop?
Many conditions can cause elbow popping. The following details may give you a better idea of what is causing your symptoms. However, if you experience pain or other concerning symptoms, see a physician.
Traumatic causes of elbow popping may include the following.
- Acute injury: Falling on an outstretched hand can damage the structures of the elbow outright, as well as leave scar tissue if it does not heal properly.
- Repetitive strain injury (overuse): Damage from this type of injury is especially common from overhead arm motions from playing tennis or baseball.
- Previous surgery on or around the elbow: This may leave scar tissue.
Cavitation is a change in the pressure inside the bursa (the fluid-filled cushions that surround the joints). The pressure builds up through repetitive movement and the pop is heard when it equalizes again. This sort of pop is painless, harmless, and very common.
Inflammation of the ulnar nerve
Inflammation and displacement of the ulnar nerve, which courses through the elbow and down the ulna (the smaller of the two bones in the forearm) can lead to elbow popping. If it becomes inflamed, irritated, and swollen through injury or overuse, the long fibers of the nerve can slip in and out of the groove behind the elbow and make a clicking sound.
Tearing of scar tissue
This can occur during a sudden strenuous motion, such as a hard swing with a tennis racket. There will be a pop followed by pain, swelling, and bruising.
Arthritis of the elbow
This is caused by the protective cartilage at the ends of the upper and lower arm bones within the elbow joint wearing away. Popping may be heard as the bones move and shift against each other. The loose fragments of worn cartilage can also interfere with movement.
Inflammation of the extensor tendon
This lies on the outside of the elbow joint and allows you to extend your arm straight out to the side. If this tendon becomes swollen, irritated, and inflamed through overuse, it may make a popping or clicking sound as it slides over the bone when you move your arm. Injury to this tendon is common.
Rare and unusual causes
Elbow deformity can be present at birth. The deformity may be mild and only create an occasional pop inside the elbow, or it can be severe enough to interfere with the normal use of the joint.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
An elbow sprain is an injury of the tendons or muscles of the elbow.
Top Symptoms: elbow pain, elbow pain from an injury
Symptoms that always occur with elbow sprain: elbow pain from an injury
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Top Symptoms: hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand, pain in one elbow, pain in one forearm
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Osteochondritis dissecans, also called OCD, is a joint condition. It occurs when there is not enough blood flow within the end of a bone, under the protective cartilage. These bone layers begin to die and separate from the main bone, taking the cartilage with them.
The exact cause is not known. It may be due to overtraining a young person before the bone is entirely mature, which can interfere with blood supply.
Most susceptible are children and teenagers. The condition is found most often in only one joint, usually the ankle, knee, or elbow. However, any joint can be affected and there may be more than one.
Symptoms include swelling and pain in the joint during exercise, and sometimes "locking" of the joint. Osteochondritis dissecans may lead to osteoarthritis if not treated.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging.
Treatment first involves rest because in children who are still growing, the bone and cartilage may heal spontaneously. If there are loose pieces of bone within a joint, surgery may be necessary.
Top Symptoms: pain in one knee, knee stiffness, knee instability, knee pain that gets worse during a run, pop in the knee
Urgency: Primary care doctor
When and how to relieve elbow popping or locking
You can try the following treatments at home to help relieve symptoms.
- Use proper form: Study techniques to make sure you are playing and using sport equipment correctly, so as not to aggravate a previous injury or cause a new one.
- Use icepacks or cold packs: These can help reduce any swelling.
- NSAIDs: Use OTC non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin to ease pain and swelling.
When to see a doctor
Schedule an appointment to discuss the following with your physician.
- Physical therapy: This can help you learn proper technique or exercises to help manage pops and clicks that are painless, but annoying. This can allow you to recover your normal strength and use of an injured elbow.
- A brace: Being fitted for a brace can help support the injured elbow.
- Surgery: This is if more conservative measures are not helping enough.
When it is an emergency
Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room if your elbow popping or clicking sounds are accompanied by severe pain and great difficulty moving the arm.
Although not all elbow injuries or wear-and-tear can be prevented, it is important to allow periods of proper rest if you're an athlete or have a labor-intensive job or hobby. Make sure to educate yourself on proper form while exercising and consult professionals if necessary.
Questions your doctor may ask about elbow popping
- Have someone feel for your pulse (at the wrist) on the side of your body that hurts. Now, turn your head to that side. Does the pulse go away? (This is known as the Adson's test.)
- Turn your head toward the side of your body that is hurting. Lift your head up as someone else pushes down on your head. Does this cause greater pain in your upper body? (This is known as Spurling's test.)
- Do your symptoms worsen when you bend your elbow?
- Can you easily move your pinky toward your ring finger?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Elbow popping statistics
People who have experienced elbow popping have also experienced:
- 32% Elbow Pain
- 8% Sharp Elbow Pain
- 6% Dull Elbow Pain
People who have experienced elbow popping were most often matched with:
- 33% Elbow Sprain
- 33% Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)
- 33% Golfer'S Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis)
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).
Janeen has worked over eight years as a full-time medical transcriptionist, specializing in pain management and gynecologic oncology. She later began transcribing reports for hospital emergency rooms and acute care admissions. This background gave her a strong medical vocabulary as well as a heart for making medical information accessible to the average person, leading her to work as a medical writer. She began as a pre-veterinary medicine major at Texas State University.
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- Xarchas KC, Psillakis I, Koukou O, Kazakos KJ, Ververidis A, Verettas DA. Ulnar nerve dislocation at the elbow: Review of the literature and report of three cases. Open Orthop J. 2007;1:1-3. NCBI Link.
- Arthritis of the elbow. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link
- Kachrimanis G, Papadopoulou O. Acute partial rupture of the common extensor tendon. J Ultrasound. 2010;13(2):74-75. NCBI Link