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What causes elbow pain?

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Many people suffer from elbow pain at different stages of their lives. But what causes such elbow pain?

To understand elbow pain better, you need to look at the structure and function of the elbow joint. The elbow joint is formed by the intersection of the humerus or the upper arm bone, the radius or the large forearm bones and the ulna or the small forearm bone.

The exact location where these bones connect is crisscrossed by tendons, muscles and ligaments. Around them there are fluid filled sacs which are known as bursae and pads of cartilage. The elbow joint is a synovial joint and so the cartilage at the ends of the bones are situated in a lubricating fluid called synovium. It is necessary because it reduces friction while moving.

Primary causes


There are two primary causes of elbow pain.

1. Traumatic injuries

If you suffer any traumatic injuries, you will have elbow pain. Some injuries may result in excruciating pain like when you tore a tendon ligament or dislocate the elbow. When they happen, you will feel a very sharp pain. If you lend very hard on your elbow while playing a sport, that can also result in excruciating elbow pain. Sometimes popeye elbow, or olecranon bursitis, can also cause extreme elbow pain.

2. Repetitive strain injuries

Sometimes, it may be difficult for you to understand why you are having elbow pain. This type of pain will feel and look very similar to other types of elbow pain. Suddenly one day your elbow may start hurting and you may not have any idea why that is happening to you.

If that happens with you, you may have a repetitive strain injury (RSI). Such injuries are caused by the wear and tear from repeated movement and overuse.

There may be different types of RSIs. Some of the most common RSI in case of elbow pain include-

Lateral epicondylitis

It is also commonly known as tennis elbow. It happens because of inflammation of tendons connecting the upper arm bone from your elbow. This generally mostly happens to sportsperson but it can also happen to other people. The primary tendon is involved in this problem and it is responsible for movements that involve keeping the wrist straight. This tendon is known as lateral epicondyle.

Medial epicondylitis

This is commonly known as golfer's elbow. This happens because of inflammation of tendons that connect the part of the upper arm bone on the inside of the elbow. This tendon is known as medial epicondyle.

This tendon is crucial for movements that involve flexing the wrist against resistance.

Biceps tendinopathy

This type of elbow pain is caused by the inflammation or gradual degeneration of the bicep tendons. If you keep flexing the elbow repeatedly, because of too much use degeneration or inflammation of the tendon may happen.

Radial tunnel syndrome

This type of syndrome is caused by compression of the posterior interosseous nerve. This nerve goes through the elbow joint. If you need to rotate the forearm repeatedly, then this problem may happen to you.

Elbow bursitis

This is another type of inflammation that results in elbow pain. When there is inflammation of the tiny, fluid filled sacs that pad the elbow, elbow pain may happen. Different kinds of repeated movements can cause inflammation of such small bursae thereby resulting in pain.

References 1. Fixing elbow pain
2. Elbow pain: a guide to assessment and management in primary care
3. Elbow Injuries and Disorders