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Severe Elbow Pain Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

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Understand severe elbow pain symptoms, including 7 causes & common questions.

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Symptoms of severe elbow pain

The elbow is important for many daily activities. As a result, severe elbow pain can lead to significant impairment. Conditions that cause severe elbow pain symptoms can involve a number of structures that are part of the elbow. Three bones come together to form the elbow joint, which allows flexion and extension as well as twisting of the forearm. Multiple muscles are connected to bony structures of the elbow via tendons. In addition, the very tip of the elbow is covered by a thin sac of fluid called a bursa, which provides cushioning for the bone. Pain in elbow structures may result from acute injuries or chronic conditions.

Common accompanying symptoms of severe elbow pain

In addition to severe pain, you may also experience:

  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Pain that worsens with movement
  • Finger tingling or numbness
  • Inability to move the elbow
  • Locking and/or catching sensation

Causes of severe elbow pain

The following causes may help you better understand the symptoms you are experiencing. It's unlikely that you can adequately treat your severe elbow pain at home. See a physician for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Acute injury

Severe elbow pain may occur due to injuries.

  • Fracture: An injury, such as being hit by an object, can cause a fracture of one of the three bones that make up the elbow joint.
  • Dislocation: Landing on an outstretched hand during a fall can push the bones of the elbow out of their normal positions.
  • Soft tissue injury: A tear or strain of a muscle, tendon (which connects a muscle to bone), or ligament (which connects bones to each other) can cause severe elbow pain symptoms. One example of a soft tissue injury causing elbow pain is a biceps tendon tear.

Chronic conditions

Chronic conditions can damage the structures of the elbow leading to severe pain over time, with sudden flares also possible.

  • Arthritis: Wear-and-tear damage to the elbow over time or inflammatory types of arthritis can occur in the elbow, causing pain that may be severe.
  • Gout: This is a type of arthritis caused by the formation of abnormal crystals can cause sudden attacks of swelling and intense pain in the elbow.
  • Bursitis: Overuse or excess pressure placed on the elbow over time can lead to inflammation of the bursa, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness.
  • Tendonitis: While the biceps tendon can be torn in an acute injury, it can also become painful due to repetitive motions over time.

Infectious causes

You may have an infection impacting the structures of the elbow, causing severe pain.

  • Infected joint: An infection of the elbow joint can cause sudden severe pain, redness, and swelling.
  • Infected bursa: The elbow bursa can become infected, leading to similar symptoms as an infected joint.

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

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

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the joints, causing them to become thickened and painful. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, eyes, and circulatory system.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Most at risk are women from ages 30-60. Other risk factors are family history, smoking, and obesity.

Early symptom include warm, swollen, stiff, painful joints, especially the fingers and toes; fatigue; and fever. Usually, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

If untreated, irreversible joint damage and deformity can occur, with other complications. Early diagnosis can allow preventive treatment to begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; and x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed to improve quality of life. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs; physical therapy; and sometimes surgery to repair the joints.

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

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.

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

Severe elbow pain treatments and relief

Some acute injuries that cause severe elbow pain require immediate diagnosis and management to promote healing. In addition, an infection in the elbow needs to be managed urgently to prevent permanent damage.

When it is an emergency

Seek care immediately if you experience:

  • Severe pain, weakness, and/or inability to bend the elbow after an injury
  • Numbness or tingling in any fingers
  • A red, warm elbow that is possibly draining pus
  • An elbow that is at an odd angle
  • Part of the bone sticking out through the skin

When to see a doctor

In some cases, even though emergency treatment isn't necessary, you may need medical evaluation. Make an appointment with your physician if you experience the following.

  • Arthritis with worsening pain
  • Consistent elbow pain with movement
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Limitations at work or other activities
  • Decreased range of motion of the elbow

Medical treatments

Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of your severe elbow pain:

  • Steroid injections: These can relieve pain from arthritis or bursitis.
  • Surgical management: This can address severe arthritis.
  • Physical therapy: This can help you recover a normal range of motion and strength after an injury.
  • Medication: This may be needed to treat gout attacks.

At-home treatments

Some home treatments may help with severe elbow pain, such as the following.

  • RICE: If the pain occurs after an injury, try RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Rest and ice the elbow, not leaving the ice pack on for more than 20 minutes at a time. Apply compression (such as with an ace bandage) and elevate the elbow to prevent or reduce swelling.
  • Heat: A heating pad may help with chronic pain.
  • Cushion and protect: Avoid placing pressure on the elbow or use an elbow pad to provide cushioning.
  • Be careful: Avoid activities that exacerbate the severe elbow pain symptoms.

Finding the right over-the-counter (OTC) solutions can be a game changer in managing your symptoms at home. Here’s a tailored guide to help you:

  • Anti-inflammatory Pain Relievers: Products like ibuprofen can reduce inflammation and alleviate pain.
  • Elbow Braces and Supports: To stabilize your elbow and limit painful movements, consider using an elbow brace.
  • Ice Packs: Applying cold therapy can help decrease swelling and numb the pain.

FAQs about severe elbow pain

What kinds of injury cause severe elbow pain?

An injury, such as falling on your hand with the arm extended, can cause a fracture of one of the bones that form the elbow. Landing directly on the elbow itself can cause a fracture of the very tip of the elbow. Falling on an outstretched hand is also a common cause of elbow dislocation since the bones of the forearm and bone of the upper arm can be pushed out of their normal connection. Injury to structures in the vicinity of the elbow, such as the biceps tendon, can also cause severe elbow pain.

Can severe elbow pain be caused by arthritis?

Multiple types of arthritis can affect the elbow, such as osteoarthritis, which occurs over time due to wear-and-tear damage. Elbow osteoarthritis is particularly likely to occur after a past elbow injury or working in an occupation that involves repetitive elbow motion. The elbow can also be affected by inflammatory types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Gout, a type of arthritis caused by abnormal crystals within the joint, can occur in the elbow.

Can particular activities cause severe elbow pain to develop?

Certain activities can pose a greater likelihood of developing elbow pain. Repetitive motions involving the elbow, such as throwing, can lead to pain in the biceps tendon. Repeatedly leaning on the elbows for long periods of time can also cause inflammation and pain in the bursa, a fluid-filled structure that pads the tip of the elbow. Excessive use of the elbow over time may eventually cause arthritis to develop.

Can severe elbow pain be caused by an infection?

Yes, severe pain in the elbow can be a sign of joint infection (septic arthritis). A recent injury breaking the skin over the joint can allow bacteria to enter. Chronic conditions such as arthritis in the elbow or a weakened immune system increase the risk of septic arthritis. Symptoms other than pain include redness, swelling, warmth, and fever. Emergency treatment, including drainage, is necessary to prevent irreversible damage to the elbow joint.

Will I need surgery to treat my severe elbow pain?

Many causes of severe elbow pain can be treated without surgery. Rest, anti-inflammatory medications such as NSAIDs, and physical therapy will help relieve pain. Arthritis can be treated with pain medications and steroid injections. However, surgery may be indicated for severe pain that does not respond well to these treatments. In addition, some types of acute injuries to the elbow require immediate surgery to allow complete recovery.

Questions your doctor may ask about severe 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.

Severe elbow pain statistics

People who have experienced severe elbow pain have also experienced:

  • 13% Sharp Elbow Pain
  • 9% Elbow Pain
  • 6% Hand Tingling

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

  • 55% Elbow Dislocation (Radial Head Subluxation)
  • 33% Ulnar Nerve Entrapment Of Elbow
  • 11% Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)

People who have experienced severe 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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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
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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