Elbow Pain Symptoms
The elbows are a part of the body we don't think much about until something goes wrong. If you're suddenly struggling to lift grocery bags or feel a sudden sharp pain when reaching up to scratch your face, it's time to explore the cause of your elbow pain.
Symptoms of elbow pain vary greatly depending on the underlying cause, but there are some elbow pain symptoms that are common in patients:
- Swelling of the elbow
- Elbow redness
- Issues with range of motion
- Locking sensation and grating sound in the elbow during movement
- Joint instability
The elbow is a joint. More specifically, it is a hinge joint that allows the back and forth movement we need from our 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 .
The elbow is a complicated joint with plenty of areas for issues. Because so many muscles either start at or enter close to the elbow, injuries are not uncommon.
If you are young and otherwise healthy, elbow pain symptoms will usually resolve on their own. But for those further along in life, elbow pain can signal joint damage that needs to be addressed.
Elbow Pain Causes
In younger patients, trauma is a common cause for elbow pain that requires time and rest as the best treatment. But in older patients, more serious cases are likely to blame. Here are a few causes to consider [2,3].
Trauma elbow pain causes:
- Dislocated or fractured elbow: If one of the bones that forms 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 tendinitis.
Infectious elbow pain causes:
- 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 patients 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 elbow pain causes:
- Rheumatoid arthritis: 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 and can be very painful .
- Osteochondritis dissecans: Common among kids and teenagers, in which part of the bone near the elbow dies. Cartilage breaks off as well, causing pain during movement .
These are just some of the many causes of elbow pain. Most are due to overuse or strain placed on the elbow joint, usually related to work, sports, or accidents, and resolve on their own.
8 Possible Elbow Pain Conditions
The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced elbow pain. 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
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
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
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 attacking foreign pathogens mistakenly begins attacking the own body's tissues. In adults, RA is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis caused by autoimmunity.
RA is caused by the immune system attacking the lining of the joints (synovium). This immune activity results in inflammation in the synovium that causes it to thicken and expand. The thickening destroys the cartilage and bone of the joint and causes the tendons and ligaments of the joint to weaken and stretch.
Over time, the cartilage loss continues, the space between bones becomes smaller, and eventually the joint becomes loose, painful and unstable. As the condition becomes more advanced, RA can also affect multiple organ systems, including the eyes, skin, lungs and the cardiovascular system.
Diagnosis is through physical examination, blood tests, and X-rays.
Treatments include lifestyle modifications, several classes of medications, and sometimes surgery.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, joint pain, muscle aches, daytime sleepiness
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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 without grimacing in pain, call your doctor. Seek immediate medical attention if:
- 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
Depending on the extent and severity of the elbow pain symptoms, you may consult an orthopedic specialist for treatment or try the following home remedies:
- RICE method: If the pain is due to an injury, provide first aid to control the swelling and pain. Rest the elbow. Put 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 be helpful.
Because elbows are constantly bending and moving, discomfort isn't always a surprise. But if your elbow pain is starting to impede your quality of life, there are ways to treat and prevent elbow pain symptoms.
FAQs About Elbow Pain
Here are some frequently asked questions 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, 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 causing elbow pain. Common types of elbow injuries include repetitive use injuries like tennis elbow and golfers 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 and the bone on the outside of the elbow . It is caused by repetitive motion, usually involving a turning of the wrist and subsequent inflammation of the tendon. 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 slow accumulation of 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 the foot, but in more advanced stages 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. If caused by an infection, the infection must be treated and damage can be mitigated by 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. Infrequently, they can occur in the elbow and cause a decrease of motion, pain with movement, or swelling as the bone spur is bumped or undergoes trauma. They occur either because of repeated trauma to the elbow or because of a normal process within the body. They can be surgically removed or shaved down if they limit an individual's activity excessively.
Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Elbow Pain
To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:
- 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.)
The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.
If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions
Take a quiz to find out why you're having elbow pain
Elbow Pain Symptom Checker 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 visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).
- Elbow Anatomy. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis Foundation Link.
- Ma CB. Elbow Pain. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated September 22, 2016. MedlinePlus Link.
- Javed M, Mustafa S, Boyle S, Scott F. Elbow Pain: A Guide to Assessment and Management in Primary Care. British Journal of General Practice. 2015;65(640):610-612. NCBI Link.
- Gout and Pseudogout. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Published 2013. ASSH Link.
- Churchill RW, Munoz J, Ahmad CS. Osteochondritis Dissecans of the Elbow. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine. 2016;9(2):232-239. NCBI Link.
- Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated July 2015. OrthoInfo Link.