For many physical laborers and athletes who spend their career using their arms, elbow injuries are a common and unwanted companion. A surprising number of older adults also experience elbow pain as part of their everyday life.
If you are trying to track down the source of your elbow pain, don’t miss this quick guide to three common causes:
Anatomy of the Elbow
Many assume that the elbow is simply one singular joint connecting the upper (humerus) and lower arm bones (radius and ulna). You might be surprised then to learn that the elbow is actually comprised of three joints, an intricate anatomical web of bone, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage.
Elbows are unique to humans and primates making them essential to evolved lifeforms. These articulating joints allow your elbow the full range of function it experiences from bending to rotating and pivoting. The three elbow joints include:
Humeroulnar joint – considered a hinge-joint, the humeroulnar joint allows for flexion and extension movements
Humeroradial joint – like the shoulder, this joint is called a “ball and socket” joint because the head or “ball” of the radius in the forearm rests in the capitulum or “socket” of the humerus
Proximal radioulnar joint – when you rotate your wrist, this joint allows for the pivoting movements known as pronation and supination
Common Causes of Elbow Pain
Hyperextended elbow – when the hinge joint of your elbow, your humeroulnar joint, is stretched backward out of its normal range of motion it can become “hyperextended.” This typically happens as the result of a traumatic injury like a fall or a collision. The exaggerated stretching of the tendons and ligaments which stabilize the joint can cause microscopic tearing and inflammation.
Elbow joint hyperextension is characterized by symptoms including arm pain targeted to the elbow, swelling, loss of circulation, reduced strength, limited mobility, muscle spasms, and even physical deformity. For mild cases, a hyperextended elbow can be treated at home with rest, ice therapy, compression, and physical therapy. Orthotic aids like tape, elbow straps, and elbow braces may also help to reinforce the joint as it heals. In severe cases, physical therapy or even surgery may be required to help the elbow fully recover.
Elbow tendonitis – on the inner and outer sides of the elbow you’ll find flexor and pronator tendons which attach to the humerus. When these tendons and the sheaths in which they glide become overworked, it can result in elbow tendonitis or flexor tendonitis of the elbow. This injury is common to athletes who repetitively throw or swing during their career, i.e. baseball pitchers, golfers, and tennis players, and workers who engage in similar motions, i.e. painters, butchers, carpenters, and plumbers. Depending on the location of the pain in the elbow, this injury may be called tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow.
In addition to pain on the inner or outer side of the elbow (especially when throwing or swinging), symptoms of elbow tendonitis will include swelling, tenderness, and weakness. This condition typically affects adults between the ages of 30 and 50 who participate in jobs or sports like those mentioned above. Like hyperextended elbow, you can treat this type of tendonitis with rest, applying ice packs, compression and utilizing orthotic aids to support the joint.
Over-the-counter pain relievers and physical therapy may help as well. Invasive procedures like surgery, injections, or ultrasonic tenotomy may be administered if more conservative measures do not relieve symptoms.
Arthritis – if you haven’t experienced an impact that could hyperextend or dislocate your elbow, and if you know you have not participated in repetitive motion activities that could lead to elbow joint wear and tear, your elbow pain could be stemming from arthritis. There are various types of arthritis but some of the most common are often felt in the elbow – osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The rubbery cartilage which cushions the joints starts to degenerate in people with arthritis and the joint lining can swell leaving bones to painfully rub against one another.
Pain as well as inflammation, tenderness, and joint stiffness are hallmarks of this condition as are joint instability and the feeling of your elbow joint “locking”. If you suspect arthritis, you should talk to your doctor about evaluating your symptoms for a diagnosis and treatment plan. They may recommend taking anti-inflammatories, low-impact exercise, topical aids, physical therapy, and cutting back on activities that make symptoms worse. Severe cases of arthritis in the elbows may also benefit from surgical treatment to replace the joint entirely with an artificial one or to remove bone spurs (and fragments) and diseased joint fluid.