Causes of Elbow Swelling & How to Address Inflammation

Fluid build-up in the elbow can be caused by trauma from an injury, an infection, or arthritis. Elbow bursitis is the most common cause of elbow pain and swelling. Read below for more information on causes and how to get rid of a swollen elbow.

Swollen Elbow Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your swollen elbow

Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 8 Possible Swollen Elbow Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. FAQs
  6. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  7. Statistics
  8. Related Articles
  9. References

Swollen Elbow Symptoms

It's finally the weekend, and you're working on your tennis game. As soon as your racket makes contact with the ball, a sudden, sharp pain radiates through your elbow. You hope it's just a fluke but your next attempt at hitting the ball confirms your fear — your elbow has started to swell.

A swollen elbow, or olecranon bursitis, can get in the way of work, fun, and your tennis game [1,2]. The good news is that the swollen elbow symptom is rarely linked to a serious condition.

Common accompanying symptoms of a swollen elbow

If you have a swollen elbow, you may also experience:

  • Swelling, both mild and severe
  • Pain when bending or touching the elbow
  • Redness
  • Warmth
  • Pus (due to infection)

Maybe you remember hitting your elbow on a firm surface. Maybe you know a previously diagnosed condition could be behind your discomfort. Or maybe the swelling has no obvious cause. In all these situations, finding relief is a must.

Swollen Elbow Causes

A swollen elbow may resolve on its own with rest. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if you need to see a physician.

Traumatic causes

Trauma-related causes of a swollen elbow may include the following.

  • Injury: A sports injury can be one cause of swollen elbow symptoms [3]. If your elbow is stopped with tremendous force, such as from a car accident, swelling can happen almost immediately.
  • Repetitive pressure: Resting a portion of your body weight on your elbows for an excessive amount of time can lead to irritation and swelling. This is common for students and plumbers.

Infectious causes

Your elbow may swell due to an infection.

  • Cut: An abrasion to the elbow can go unnoticed or untreated. If an infection develops, a swollen elbow is one of the first signs.
  • Insect bite: Not all insect bites can cause olecranon bursitis. But if you're allergic to a specific type of bite or the affected area becomes infected, the elbow can swell.

Conditions and diseases

Certain medical conditions can result in elbow swelling.

  • Arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis and gout can affect joints throughout the body, including the elbow [4].
  • Kidney failure: Chronic kidney disease can be linked to olecranon bursitis [5].

8 Possible Swollen Elbow Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced swollen elbow. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

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.

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 bruise

A bruise is the damage of the blood vessels that return blood to the heart (the capillaries and veins), which causes pooling of the blood. This explains the blue/purple color of most bruises. Bruises of the elbow are common, often due to minor injury.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: constant elbow pain, pain in one elbow, elbow pain from an injury, recent elbow injury, swollen elbow

Symptoms that always occur with elbow bruise: recent elbow injury, elbow pain from an injury, constant elbow pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

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.

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

Elbow sprain

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

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

Swollen Elbow Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your 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.

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

Rheumatoid arthritis

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...

Read more

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.

The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.

Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.

Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.

If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.

Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain

Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis: facial redness, area of skin redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Synovial chondromatosis

Synovial chondromatosis is a disease affecting the synovium, which is a thin flexible membrane around a joint. It can often be confused with tendinitis and/or arthritis.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: joint swelling, pain in one knee, pain in one hip, swollen knee, spontaneous knee pain

Symptoms that always occur with synovial chondromatosis: joint swelling

Symptoms that never occur with synovial chondromatosis: fever, night sweats, unintentional weight loss, warm red ankle swelling, warm red knee swelling, warm and red elbow swelling

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Swollen Elbow Treatments and Relief

A swollen elbow is a common injury, and in most cases, not dangerous. Once you determine the cause of your swollen elbow symptoms, treatment won't be far behind.

At-home treatments

If your elbow is swollen but manageable, a trip to the doctor probably isn't necessary. As long as your elbow isn't infected, treating your elbow at home is possible.

  • RICE: Most cases of swollen elbows will positively respond to this treatment, which can be remembered by the acronym RICE. Rest the affected area and ice it several times a day. If possible, compress the affected elbow and elevate it as much as possible.
  • NSAIDs: To relieve pain and swelling, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are an ideal option. These include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin.
  • Epsom salt: Epsom salt contains magnesium, an anti-inflammatory mineral. Soak your elbow in warm water containing Epsom salt twice a day.

When to see a doctor

If your elbow swelling persists or you notice what seems to be a fluid-filled lump, you should see your doctor. In extreme cases, removing excess fluid with aspiration is the only treatment for relief. This needs to be performed by professionals and monitored for infection.

When it is an emergency

In some cases of a swollen elbow, especially with the following symptoms, medical attention is necessary. Seek care immediately for:

  • Excessive bleeding from an injury
  • Oozing pus
  • Inability to move elbow at all
  • Little to no improvement over the course of a week
  • Fever or local signs of infection

FAQs About Swollen Elbow

Here are some frequently asked questions about a swollen elbow.

Why is my elbow swollen with no pain?

The most common cause of elbow swelling without pain is a condition called bursitis. The bursa is a thin, fluid-filled structure that cushions the bony tip of the elbow. Overuse or excess pressure placed on the elbow over time can cause inflammation and swelling of the bursa. Bursitis is sometimes painful, but it can also be painless.

Why is my swollen elbow hot to the touch?

A warm, swollen, painful elbow can be a sign of gout. This condition is a type of arthritis that causes sudden symptoms in one joint at a time, including in the elbow. Swelling and warmth to the touch may also indicate an infection. The elbow joint or the bursa, a fluid-filled sac cushioning the bone, can become infected. An elbow infection can have serious consequences including permanent damage to the joint. Seek immediate treatment for a hot, swollen, painful elbow, particularly if you also have a fever.

Can exercise cause my elbow to swell?

Exercise involving repetitive elbow motions, such as tennis or golf, can cause swelling over time. Overuse of the elbow can cause bursitis — swelling of the fluid-filled sac that cushions the bone. Swelling can also be caused by an overuse injury of one of the tendons of the elbow. Pain may be present in addition to swelling.

Why does one of my elbows swell but not the other?

Swelling of only one elbow likely indicates a problem on just that side. You may experience swelling in one elbow if you use that side frequently for a sport, like tennis. You could also have an injury to just one elbow, resulting in pain and swelling. In addition, an elbow infection or an attack of gout will likely affect only one side.

Can you work out with elbow bursitis?

If you have been diagnosed with elbow bursitis, you should rest the elbow to give the inflammation a chance to resolve. Avoid exercises that place particular stress on the elbow, such as tennis and golf. In addition, try not to place too much pressure on the affected elbow. Icing the elbow may also help.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Swollen Elbow

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Is your swollen area warm and red?
  • Do you feel pain when you presses on your elbow?
  • Do you work in a profession where you often have to lean on your elbows?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your swollen elbow. These questions are also covered.

Swollen Elbow Quiz

Swollen Elbow Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced swollen elbow have also experienced:

  • 17% Elbow Pain
  • 6% Pain In One Elbow
  • 4% Elbow Locking

People who have experienced swollen elbow were most often matched with:

  • 71% Elbow Dislocation (Radial Head Subluxation)
  • 14% Elbow (Olecranon) Bursitis
  • 14% Elbow Bruise

People who have experienced swollen elbow had symptoms persist for:

  • 45% Less than a week
  • 26% Less than a day
  • 12% Over a month

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

Swollen Elbow Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your swollen elbow

References

  1. Elbow (Olecranon) Bursitis. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Reviewed March 2018. OrthoInfo Link
  2. Olecranon Bursitis. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. ASSH Link
  3. Chumbley EM, O'Connor FG, Nirschl RP. Evaluation of Overuse Elbow Injuries. Am Fam Physician. 2000 Feb 1;61(3):691-700. AAFP Link
  4. Arthritis of the Elbow. Cedars-Sinai. Cedars-Sinai Link
  5. Khodaee M. Common Superficial Bursitis. Am Fam Physician. 2017 Feb 15;95(4):224-231. AAFP Link