What is it?
Your elbow is a complex joint that allows you to perform pushing and pulling movements and to rotate your forearm. Elbow pain usually isn't serious, but because you use your elbow in so many ways, elbow pain can affect daily life. Elbow pain can be caused by injury or strain to the bones in your elbow joint, the surrounding muscles or the tendons that attach the muscles to the bones. Elbow pain may also be due to damage arising from the elbow joint's network of nerves, blood vessels and ligaments. Overuse or repeated pressure on the elbow joint can cause small tears to form in the soft tissue, particularly where the tendon anchors to bone. If a number of these tears occur over a period of time, they can cause pain and reduced movement of the elbow joint. Sometimes problems in your neck, shoulder and upper arm, or your forearm and wrist can result in elbow pain.
What causes it?
Elbow pain is a common complaint and there are many common causes. It is important to make an accurate diagnosis of the cause of your symptoms so appropriate treatment can be prescribed. Most elbow pain is caused by overuse injuries – usually associated with sports, hobbies or repetitive work tasks. Elbow pain may occasionally be due to arthritis, but in general, your elbow joint is much less prone to wear-and-tear damage than are many other joints. A common cause in adults is tendinitis, an inflammation and injury to the tendons – soft tissues that attach muscle to bone. People who play racquet sports are most likely to injure the tendons on the outside of the elbow. This condition is commonly called tennis elbow. Golfers are more likely to injure the tendons on the inside of the elbow. Other sports that can result in elbow injuries include rowing, canoeing, weightlifting, hockey, wrestling and swimming.
Other common causes of elbow pain include:
Arthritis – narrowing of the joint space and loss of cartilage in the elbow
Bursitis – inflammation of a fluid-filled cushion beneath the skin
Cubital tunnel syndrome (this occurs when the ulnar nerve on the inside of your elbow is irritated or injured)
Dislocations and fractures
Infection of the elbow
Ligament sprains and tears
Radial tunnel syndrome (this occurs when the radial nerve becomes compressed just beyond your elbow)
Referred pain – injuries to the bones of the spine (vertebrae) can irritate the nerves servicing the arm and cause referred pain around the elbow joint
Home treatment for elbow pain includes:
Bandage or air splint
You should see a doctor, physiotherapist or sports physician if you are unable to use the elbow or if the pain does not improve. You should also seek professional advice if you are prone to recurring bouts of elbow pain or you experience fever, swelling or redness of your elbow.
Treatment options may include:
Flexibility and strengthening exercises (as prescribed by your physiotherapist)
Soft tissue massage
Surgery (in severe cases)
For arthritis, physical therapy and analgesics may help. For infections, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. For bursitis, your doctor may need to drain the fluid and give you antibiotics. It is advisable to avoid or modify work tasks or sporting activities that put excessive pressure on muscles of the forearm. This includes repetitive work involving forceful movement or awkward postures. Depending on the location and severity of the injury, full recovery can take up to six months.