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Elbow pain

Definition

This article describes aching or other discomfort in the elbow that is not related to direct injury.

Alternative Names

Pain - elbow

Common Causes

Elbow pain can be caused by a variety of problems. 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 common causes of elbow tendinitis are gardening, playing baseball, using a screwdriver, or overusing your wrist and arm.

Young children commonly develop "nursemaid's elbow," usually when someone is pulling on their straightened arm. The bones are stretched apart momentarily and a ligament slips in between, where it becomes trapped when the bones try to snap back into place. Children will usually quietly refuse to use the arm, but often cry out with any attempt to bend or straighten the elbow. This condition is also called an elbow subluxation (a partial dislocation).

Other common causes of elbow pain are:

  • Bursitis -- inflammation of a fluid-filled cushion beneath the skin
  • Arthritis -- narrowing of the joint space and loss of cartilage in the elbow
  • Elbow strains
  • Infection of the elbow

Home Care

Gently try to move the elbow and increase your range of motion. If this hurts you, or you cannot move the elbow, call your doctor or nurse.

Call your health care provider if

Call your doctor or nurse if:

  • You have a prolonged case of tendinitis that doesn't improve with home care.
  • The pain is due to a direct elbow injury.
  • There is obvious deformity.
  • You are unable to use the elbow.
  • You have fever or swelling and redness of your elbow.
  • Your elbow is locked.
  • A child has elbow pain.

What to expect at your health care provider's office

Your doctor or nurse will examine you, and carefully check your elbow. You will be asked questions about your medical history and symptoms, such as:

  • Are both elbows affected?
  • Does the pain shift from the elbow to other joints?
  • Is the pain over the outside bony prominence of the elbow?
  • Did the pain begin suddenly and severely?
  • Did the pain begin slowly and mildly and then get worse?
  • Is the pain resolving spontaneously?
  • Did the pain begin following an injury?
  • What makes the pain better or worse?

Treatment depends on the cause, but may involve:

  • Antibiotics
  • Corticosteroid shots
  • Pain medicine
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery (last resort)

References

Ronthal M. Arm and neck pain. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2008:chap 32.

Regan WD, Grondin PP, Morrey BF. Elbow and forearm. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 19.


Review Date: 8/11/2012
Reviewed By: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc. C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
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