Why Does My Elbow Hurt? Common Causes of Elbow Pain
The elbow is a hinge joint where the end of the upper arm's long bone (humerus) meets the two bones of the forearm (radius and ulna). It is surrounded by tough bands of tendons and ligaments that secure and support the joint.
Moreover, muscle structures and nerves run on the front and back of the elbow joint, which allows movement to the entire arm and fingers. Although tough and flexible, the elbow joint is not immune to pain and other conditions.
Elbow pain is a common complaint for people of all ages. Most elbow discomfort is just a simple case of acute strain that usually clears out after a few days of rest. But if the pain becomes persistent and does not get better with rest and other home remedies, then there may be an underlying medical condition involved.
Below are some of the most common conditions that affect the elbow joint and may be the culprit for your persisting elbow pain.
Repetitive movements on a specific body part can cause it to develop minute wear and tears, which can become a full-on injury over time. So, when you use or put excessive stress on the elbow joints too much, it can cause permanent damage to the joint and its surrounding structures. Some examples include:
Medial epicondylitis, commonly known as golfer's elbow, refers to a condition that affects the tendons that attach the forearm muscles to the elbow. It is characterized by pain and tenderness in the bony elbow structure, as well as inflammation, stiffness, and weakness.
Despite its name, 90% of individuals with golfer's elbow got it from overusing the elbow muscles in performing repetitive tasks, such as lifting, heavy pounding, and typing. Only 1% of patients actually develop it from playing golf.
Lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as tennis elbow, is a common culprit of elbow pain affecting about 2% of the general population. Like the golfer's elbow, it also causes pain and inflammation in the muscles that connect the forearms to the elbow bone.
However, while golfer's elbow affects the muscles on the inside of the forearm, tennis elbow affects the muscles on the outside. Besides elbow pain, other symptoms of tennis elbow include discomfort even in minimal movements, decreased grip strength, and reduced flexibility.
Most patients who get diagnosed with lateral epicondylitis are athletes that utilize the forearms repetitively, such as tennis players. Other at-risk people include manual laborers, instrument players, and heavy lifters.
Olecranon bursitis is a painful condition that affects the elbow's bursa, a sac containing a lubricating fluid that cushions the soft tissues from the bony structures. It occurs due to repetitive stress and pressure on the bursa, causing it to swell and become painful.
Olecranon bursitis is also commonly known as draftsman's elbow, miner's elbow, and student's elbow.
Radial and ulnar tunnel syndrome
The radial and ulnar nerves travel from the neck down to the forearms and wrist. They control movements and sensations of the elbow, wrist, thumbs, and fingers. However, these nerves can get trapped or compressed due to repetitive pushing, pulling, and grabbing motions of the arms.
This results in a series of symptoms that can affect the back of the hands and thumb for radial tunnel syndrome and the inside of the hand, ring finger, and pinky finger for ulnar tunnel syndrome. These symptoms include the following:
Pain and problems in extending the fingers and rotating the wrist
Tingling and numbness
Weakness in the forearm
Difficulties in gripping and lifting objects.
Claw-like hand deformity
Olecranon stress fractures are minute cracks occurring at the bony tip of the elbow. This commonly happens as a result of repetitive motion and stress to the elbows, which is common in athletes.
One-time injuries are acute damage caused to the elbow's structures that usually occur suddenly due to a direct blow, hard fall, or penetrating object. This is typically a one-off event that can still cause mild to severe elbow pain. Most elbow injuries can be treated using conservative methods, but severe ones might need surgical interventions.
Strain and sprain
Strains and sprains are medical conditions that affect the elbow's tendons and ligaments, respectively. These muscles can get stretched out or pulled due to too much activity, repetitive motions, or sudden and violent twists and rotations. Symptoms include elbow pain, tenderness, muscle weakness, and swelling.
Fortunately, mild to moderate symptoms may get better with conservative treatment options, such as physical therapy.
A contusion or bruising is a minor injury in the soft tissues of the elbow. It can cause temporary elbow pain, swelling, redness, and muscle tenderness, which can get better on its own after a few days. However, severe contusions may cause bleeding under the skin and result in a much longer recovery time.
Bone fractures in the elbow refer to partial or complete breaks in one or more of the bone structures that make up the elbow. It can be an olecranon fracture, radial head fracture, or distal humerus fracture.
Fractures usually occur due to a traumatic impact on the elbow joint and forearm. Individuals with an elbow fracture can usually tell immediately as it is characterized by severe pain, swelling, tenderness, stiffness, and bruising.
Individuals with a suspected fracture should immediately seek medical care or an orthopedic specialist to prevent the condition from worsening.
Like fractures, dislocations in the elbow can cause severe pain and mobility problems in the elbow joint. It happens when the radius and ulna of the forearm move out of the socket that attaches it to the humerus. Elbow dislocations can also result in minute fractures or ruptured tendons and arm ligaments.
Elbow pain can also be caused by several elbow disorders that develop gradually over a period of time. Generally, elbow conditions are the result of heredity, an unhealthy lifestyle, or a weakened elbow joint structure due to age.
Osteoarthritis is a prevalent disorder that can affect one or more joints in the body. It is a progressive and degenerative disease that damages the cartilage that protects the elbow joint. As a result, the protective cartilage becomes thinner and loses its lubricating ability, thus causing the elbow joint to rub and injure each other during movement.
Osteoarthritis usually causes mild symptoms at first, which may develop gradually as it is left unaddressed. Some of its most common symptoms include the following:
Pain that becomes worse during movement.
Tenderness and stiffness
A popping feeling or grating sensation
Reduced flexibility and range of motion
Arm mobility problems
Rheumatoid arthritis is another chronic and degenerative condition affecting the elbow joint, causing pain and inflammation. It is an inflammatory disorder that occurs when one's own immune system attacks the healthy tissues that line the elbow joint.
As it gradually gets destroyed, the elbow joint will begin to wear away and erode, developing bone spurs and deformities in the process.
Osteochondritis dissecans, or Panner's disease, is a joint disorder that causes the cartilage to slowly fray away, crack, and loosen due to lack of blood supply. The reduced blood flow may be the result of a traumatic injury, causing pain, swelling, and mobility problems in the elbow.
Gout is another form of arthritis that can cause pain and discomfort in the elbow area. It can happen to people with abnormally high levels of uric acid in the blood, causing it to leak into the tissues and pile up inside the joints. Once they build up, these uric acids become crystallized, making it painful and difficult to move the arms.
Where to get the best orthopaedic & sports medicine care?
Pinnacle Orthopaedics is one of the leading providers of orthopedic care and treatment services in Georgia. Our board-certified physicians specialize in managing and treating various acute and chronic orthopedic conditions, such as elbow injuries and disorders.
Contact us now to get the proper diagnosis and quality treatment options you deserve. You can also visit one of our convenient locations below:
The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.