Read below about elbow popping, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your elbow popping 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 Popping Symptoms

Everyone experiences a 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.

Characteristics:

  • 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.

Who is most often affected by elbow popping symptoms?

  • Athletes in training, especially those who use an overhead throw or swing.
  • Anyone routinely working in physical labor.
  • Older people, who have had many years of wear and tear to the structures inside the elbow.

When are elbow popping symptoms most likely to occur?

  • When pushing yourself upward by your arm, as when rising from a chair.
  • When stretching with your arm above your head.

Is elbow popping serious?

  • Occasional pops or clicks without pain are rarely 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.
  • Severe pain with inability to use the elbow joint can be the sign of a serious injury.

Elbow Popping Causes Overview

Many conditions can cause the symptom of elbow popping. We've listed several different causes here, in approximate order from most to least common:

Trauma:

  • Acute injury, such as falling on an outstretched hand. This can damage the structures of the elbow outright, as well as leave scar tissue if it does not heal properly.
  • Damage from repetitive strain injury (overuse), especially from overhead arm motions as when playing tennis or baseball.
  • Previous surgery on or around the elbow, which may leave scar tissue.

Cavitation, which 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 and displacement of the ulnar nerve, which courses through the elbow and down the ulna (the smaller of the two bones in the forearm).

  • 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.

Scar tissue can tear 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 wearing away the protective cartilage at the ends of the upper and lower arm bones, within the elbow joint. Popping may be heard as the bones move and shift against each other, and/or the loose fragments of worn cartilage interfere with movement.

Inflammation of the extensor tendon, which 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.

Rare and unusual causes:

  • Elbow deformity, possibly congenital and present from birth. The deformity may be mild and only create an occasional pop inside the elbow, or it can be severe enough to interfere with normal use of the joint.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Elbow Popping

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced elbow popping. 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

    Elbow Popping Checker

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  4. 4.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
  5. 5.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
  6. 6.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
  7. 7.Osteochondritis Dissecans

    At joints where bones meet, bones are covered with a layer of cartilage which provides shock absorbance and lubrication. Osteochondritis dissecans is a condition where a piece of cartilage with a thin layer of bone detach from the larger bone, causing pain.

    Conservative treatment should resolve the problem in 3-6 months.

    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

Elbow Popping Treatments and Relief

Seek immediate elbow popping treatment in the emergency room if:

  • The popping or clicking sounds from the elbow are accompanied by severe pain and great difficulty getting the arm to move at all.

Schedule an appointment for discussions about:

  • Physical therapy for pops and clicks that are painless, but annoying.
  • Physical therapy to aid in recovering normal strength and use of an injured elbow.
  • Being fitted for a brace to help support the injured elbow.
  • Surgery, if more conservative measures are not helping enough.

Elbow popping remedies that you can try at home:

  • Study sports techniques to make sure you are playing and using equipment correctly, so as not to aggravate a previous injury or cause a new one.
  • Use icepacks or cold packs to help reduce any swelling.
  • Use over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, to ease pain and swelling.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Elbow Popping

  • Q.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.)
  • Q.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.)
  • Q.Do your symptoms worsen when you bend your elbow?
  • Q.Can you easily move your pinky toward your ring finger?

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

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Elbow Popping Symptom Checker 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 visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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