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What Causes Joints to Pop? Elbow Popping Explained

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Last updated March 22, 2022

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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.

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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

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

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.

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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

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

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.

You can safely treat this condition on your own by resting the elbow. The usual RICE stuff applies (rest, ice, compression, elevation). Physical therapy and ibuprofen also work. If things don't improve, a doctor's visit would be in order.

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

Osteochondritis dissecans

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.

Rarity: Rare

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

Non-specific elbow pain

Non-specific elbow pain means there is no known injury or incident to account for the pain. Elbow pain is also called epicondylitis.

Non-specific elbow pain is often an overuse injury in athletes or laborers. This means there is not enough time allowed between physical work sessions for the body to heal itself.

Other common injuries from overuse are:

  • Strained or torn tendons and ligaments.
  • Damaged cartilage between the elbow joints.
  • Bone spurs.
  • Stress fractures.
  • Numbness and tingling of the "funny bone."
  • Dislocated joint.
  • Arthritis.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination with simple movement tests, and imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

Treatment involves rest, ice, and elevation of the injured arm, along with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Physical therapy can be done after initial healing.

Surgery is helpful in some cases for removal of bone spurs or loose pieces of bone or cartilage, for repair and reconstruction of torn tendons and ligaments, and for repositioning of damaged nerves.

Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis)

Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis) is a soreness or pain of the elbow caused by inflammation of the tendons connecting the forearm muscles to the inner elbow. This condition occurs as a result of an injury or doing the same movements over and over. This can be from sports such as golf and baseball, but also from day to day activities requiring repetitive hand and arm motions like lifting or grasping objects.

You can safely treat this condition on your. Treatment is conservative (physical therapy, Ibuprofen, rest, and a brace) for 6-12 months, after which surgery might become an option.

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

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a set of chronic symptoms that include ongoing fatigue, diffuse tenderness to touch, musculoskeletal pain, and usually some degree of depression.

The cause is not known. When fibromyalgia appears, it is usually after a stressful physical or emotional event such as an automobile accident or a divorce. It may include a genetic component where the person experiences normal sensation as pain.

Almost 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Anyone with rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more prone to fibromyalgia.

Poor sleep is often a symptom, along with foggy thinking, headaches, painful menstrual periods, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, bright lights, and loud noises.

There is no standard test for fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made when the above symptoms go on for three months or more with no apparent cause.

Fibromyalgia does not go away on its own but does not get worse, either.

Treatment involves easing symptoms and improving the patient's quality of life through pain medications, exercise, improved diet, and help with managing stressful situations.

Elbow popping quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your elbow popping.

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Elbow sprain

An elbow sprain is an injury to one or more elbow ligaments. It can cause pain, soreness, swelling, and/or difficulty bending and extending the elbow. An typically occurs when the arm experiences sudden, forceful stretching during physical activity or an accident.

You should ice and rest your elbow using the RICE method. If the pain is too intense, using NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen can relieve the pain.

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 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.

You should visit your primary care physician within the next 24 hours. Apply an ice pack to your elbow, but do not try to straighten or change position of your arm.

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

Elbow (olecranon) bursitis

Elbow (olecranon) bursitis is inflammation and swelling of the elbow bursa, which is a thin fluid-filled sac at the tip of the elbow. The bursa can’t usually be felt or seen unless it becomes inflamed and swollen. If the swelling is mild, there may be no pain. But, sometimes, with more swelling, there can be pain or the back of the elbow may have a soft, golf ball shaped bump over the back of it. Olecranon bursitis can be caused by a variety of factors such as elbow injury, infection, arthritis, leaning on the elbow too much, and strain from overuse.

When and how to relieve elbow popping or locking

At-home treatments

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.

Prevention

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).

Hear what 1 other is saying
Pop, clickPosted November 6, 2020 by B.
Started while swimming, right arm got restricted, some pain only, arm reset with a distinctive pop, click. Happened twice that week, both while swimming. Next, only months later. But after months later, much more frequently. Mostly while in awkward movement, eg flossing. Learned to self-restore by raising arm straight & high in the air. MRI showed fluid accumulation & tearing of elbow tendon & ligament.
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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References

References

  1. Tennis elbow - lateral epicondylitis. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. ASSH Link
  2. Brodeur R. The audible release associated with joint manipulation. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1995;18(3):155-164. NCBI Link
  3. 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.
  4. Arthritis of the elbow. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link
  5. Kachrimanis G, Papadopoulou O. Acute partial rupture of the common extensor tendon. J Ultrasound. 2010;13(2):74-75. NCBI Link