Causes of Sharp Outer or Inner Elbow Pain & How to Find Relief
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Sharp pain in the elbow can be caused by overuse injury, acute injury, or nerve compression located in the elbow or neck. Common causes of sharp outer elbow pain include tennis or golfer's elbow, and elbow dislocation, or an elbow sprain. Read below for more information on causes and how to instantly treat sharp elbow pain.
Symptoms of sharp elbow pain
Elbow pain can have different characteristics depending on the cause. Sharp elbow pain, which may be described as an electric or pins-and-needles sensation, can be particularly bothersome. In many cases, sharp elbow pain will interfere with daily activities such as sports and household chores. It can be caused by problems with several structures. These include nerves above or running through the elbow, muscle tendons and their attachments to bones in the elbow, and the bones themselves.
Common accompanying symptoms
The following symptoms may accompany your sharp elbow pain.
What causes sharp elbow pain?
Sharp elbow pain may not be cause for immediate concern. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms. If your pain worsens or persists, however, see a physician.
Acute injury to the elbow can result in sharp elbow pain, such as the following.
- Biceps tendon tear: A tear of the tendon that attaches the biceps to the elbow causes sudden sharp elbow pain along with weakness and a bulge in the upper arm. Tearing of the biceps tendon is typically caused by attempting to lift a heavy object.
- Fracture: A fracture of one of the bones that make up the elbow can cause sharp pain along with swelling and weakness. This can occur due to falling directly on the elbow or landing on the hand with the arm stretched straight out.
Repetitive motions at the elbow and wrist can cause an overuse injury of the tendons that attach to the elbow, resulting in sharp elbow pain symptoms. The pain will be located on the inner or outer side of the elbow, depending on the specific tendons affected, and will worsen with movement of the wrist or forearm.
Sharp elbow pain may be the result of nerve injury, such as the following.
- Nerve compression at the elbow: Multiple nerves run through the elbow and can be compressed due to repetitive elbow motions or anatomical abnormalities, resulting in sharp or "pins-and-needles" elbow pain. Depending on the specific nerve affected, you may feel pain in the ring and little fingers or in the forearm.
- Nerve compression in the neck: Anatomical abnormalities in the neck such as arthritis can cause compression of nerves as they exit the spinal cord. Depending on the specific nerve affected, sharp elbow pain can result. Typically, you will also feel pain in the neck and shoulder.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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..
Sharp elbow pain treatments and relief
Some home treatments may help with sharp elbow pain.
- Avoid placing pressure on the elbow: This can exacerbate nerve compression. Elbow pads may also reduce pressure on the elbow.
- Rest the elbow: You should avoid activities that seem to worsen the pain.
- Pain medication: Taking ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin can help with swelling and pain. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with the pain as well.
When to see a doctor
In some cases, even though emergency care isn't necessary, you may need treatment. Make an appointment with your physician if you experience the following.
- Pain worsens or persists
- Tingling, numbness, pain, or weakness in your fingers
- Elbow weakness
- You feel limited: The elbow pain is preventing you from carrying out your usual activities, such as playing sports.
Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of your sharp elbow pain:
- Placing a splint on the elbow
- Referral for physical therapy
- Oral steroids: These can reduce inflammation affecting nerves or tendons.
- Oral or topical pain medications
- Referral for surgical management: This if other treatments are not effective or if surgery is necessary to restore normal function after an injury.
When it is an emergency
Seek emergency treatment if you have:
- Severe swelling, pain, an abnormal angle of the elbow, weakness, and/or exposed bone after an injury
- A bulge in the upper arm along with sudden sharp elbow pain after attempting to lift a heavy object
FAQs about sharp elbow pain
Is sharp elbow pain caused by a nerve problem?
Sharp, pins-and-needles pain in the elbow may be caused by problems with a nerve. Multiple nerves run through small spaces in the elbow and can be injured or compressed due to repetitive elbow motions, structural abnormalities, or pressure placed on the elbow. Finger tingling and weakness may occur with nerve compression in the elbow. Less commonly, compression of a nerve in the neck may cause sharp elbow pain.
Why am I having sharp pain in only one elbow?
Many causes of sharp elbow pain are likely to affect only one side at a time, such as overuse injuries. The tendons in your dominant arm may become aggravated from playing a sport. Nerve compression can also affect one side if you tend to lean on one elbow while driving. An acute injury, such as a fracture, will likely occur in just one elbow.
Why do I get sharp elbow pain when I exercise?
Sharp elbow pain during exercise is likely due to an overuse injury. Repetitive motions of the wrist and forearm can cause accumulated damage to tendons that attach to the end of the humerus (the bone of the upper arm). The tendons attach to parts of the bone called epicondyles, resulting in an injury called epicondylitis. Depending on the exact tendons affected, the pain may be located on the inner side of the elbow (medial epicondylitis) or the outer side of the elbow (lateral epicondylitis). Sports activities such as golf and tennis can cause or exacerbate pain.
What can I do to fix my sharp elbow pain?
Some causes of sharp elbow pain, like overuse, will resolve with conservative measures like rest and ice. If nerve compression is the cause of sharp elbow pain, splinting the elbow can help by preventing specific movements that exacerbate the problem. Physical therapy can be helpful with overuse injuries or nerve compression. Surgical management may be necessary for acute injuries or other causes that don’t respond to non-surgical treatment.
Why am I having sharp elbow pain along with neck and shoulder pain?
If your sharp elbow pain is accompanied by pain in the neck and shoulder, compression of a nerve in the neck is most likely the cause. Nerves may be compressed as they exit the spinal cord due to bony changes such as arthritis or a herniated disc. Neck movement typically exacerbates the pain, and other symptoms like elbow or shoulder weakness may also be present.
Questions your doctor may ask about sharp 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.
Sharp elbow pain statistics
People who have experienced sharp elbow pain have also experienced:
- 9% Pain In One Shoulder
- 6% Elbow Locking
- 5% Elbow Pain
People who have experienced sharp 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 sharp 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).
- Javed M, Mustafa S, Boyle S, Scott F. Elbow pain: A guide to assessment and management in primary care. Br J Gen Pract. 2015;65(640):610-612. NCBI Link
- Biceps tendon tear at the shoulder. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated December 2013. OrthoInfo Link
- Elbow fractures. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Published 2014. ASSH Link
- Chumbley EM, O'Connor FG, Nirschl RP. Evaluation of overuse elbow injuries. American Family Physician. 2000;61(3):691-700. AAFP Link
- Pinched nerve. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link