Read below about severe elbow pain, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your severe 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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Severe Elbow Pain Symptoms

The elbow is important for many daily activities and sports. 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 can result from acute injuries or chronic conditions.

Symptoms that can be associated with severe elbow pain include:

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

Severe Elbow Pain Causes Overview

Acute injury

  • 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

  • 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 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.

Infection

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

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Severe Elbow Pain

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

  1. 1.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
  2. 2.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
  3. 3.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

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  4. 4.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
  5. 5.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
  6. 6.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
  7. 7.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

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.

Seek emergency treatment if:

  • You have severe pain, weakness, and/or inability to bend the elbow after an injury.
  • You have numbness or tingling in any fingers.
  • Your elbow is red, warm, and/or draining pus.
  • The elbow seems to be at an odd angle.
  • You can see part of the bone sticking out through the skin.

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

  • You have previously been diagnosed with a chronic condition like arthritis and are having worsening pain.
  • You consistently have pain with certain elbow movements.
  • Your elbow pain is interfering with your ability to sleep or work.
  • You have decreased range of motion of the elbow.

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

  • Steroid injections for pain relief in arthritis or bursitis.
  • Surgical management for severe arthritis.
  • Physical therapy to help recover normal range of motion and strength after an injury.
  • Treatment for an attack of gout and medication to prevent future attacks.

Some home treatments may help with severe elbow pain.

  • If the pain occurs after an injury, try RICE treatment. Resting and Icing the elbow, as well as applying Compression (such as with an ace bandage) and Elevating the elbow to prevent or reduce swelling.
  • A heating pad may help with chronic pain.
  • Avoid placing pressure on the elbow or use an elbow pad to provide cushioning.
  • Avoid activities that exacerbate the severe elbow pain symptoms.

FAQs About Severe Elbow Pain

Here are some frequently asked questions about severe elbow pain.

What kinds of injury cause severe elbow pain?

An injury such as falling on your hand with the arm stretched out can cause a fracture of one of the bones that join to 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, where the bones of the forearm and bone of the upper arm are 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. These include osteoarthritis — damage to a joint that occurs due to wear-and-tear damage over time. 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). In addition, 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 cause a predisposition to painful conditions in the elbow. Repetitive motions involving the elbow, such as sports activities, can lead to pain in the biceps tendon. Overuse or 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 a 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. In many cases of soft tissue injury, rest, anti-inflammatory pain medications such as NSAIDs, and physical therapy exercises will lead to resolution of 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

  • 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 severe elbow pain symptom checker to find out more.

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Severe Elbow Pain Symptom Checker 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 had symptoms persist for:

    • 39% Over a Month
    • 20% Less Than a Week
    • 18% Less Than a Day
  • 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)
  • 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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