Read below about elbow pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your elbow pain from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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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:

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 [1].

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 Overview

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 [4].
  • 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 [5].

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.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Elbow Pain

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced elbow pain. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Elbow Sprain

    An elbow sprain is an injury of the tendons or muscles of the elbow.

    1-3 weeks

    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
  2. 2.Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)

    Lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) is soreness or pain on the outside of the upper arm near the elbow.

    2-3 weeks and up to 12 months

    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
  3. 3.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.

    6-12 months depending on rest

    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
  4. 4.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.

    Symptoms should resolve within a week on their own.

    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

    Elbow Pain Checker

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  5. 5.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.

    6-9 weeks with rest

    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
  6. 6.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.

    Days with treatment

    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
  7. 7.Ulnar Nerve Entrapment of Elbow

    Ulnar Nerve Entrapment of Elbow is the compression of the ulnar nerve, causing numbness and/or weakness in the hands.

    Mild symptoms resolve on their own, severe disease resolves with surgery

    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
  8. 8.Rheumatoid Arthritis

    Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a form of arthritis that causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in your joints. It can affect any joint but is common in the wrist and fingers. RA is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that it is caused by the immune system incorrectly attacking the joints when it shouldn't.

    RA is a chronic disease which requires lifelong control.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    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 [6]. 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

  • Q.How would you explain the cause of your elbow pain?
  • Q.Do you currently smoke?
  • Q.Where does your elbow hurt most?
  • Q.Do you work with your hands for a lot of the day? (e.g. at a computer, doing manual tasks, etc.)

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our elbow pain symptom checker to find out more.

Elbow Pain Quiz

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 had symptoms persist for:

    • 39% Over a Month
    • 20% Less Than a Week
    • 18% Less Than a Day
  • 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)
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

A.I. Health Assistant

Take a quiz to find out why you’re having elbow pain

Elbow Pain Quiz

References

  1. Elbow Anatomy. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis Foundation Link.
  2. Ma CB. Elbow Pain. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated September 22, 2016. MedlinePlus Link.
  3. 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.
  4. Gout and Pseudogout. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Published 2013. ASSH Link.
  5. Churchill RW, Munoz J, Ahmad CS. Osteochondritis Dissecans of the Elbow. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine. 2016;9(2):232-239. NCBI Link.
  6. Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated July 2015. OrthoInfo Link.