Elbow Pain

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is elbow pain?

Elbow pain refers to any type of pain or discomfort in the elbow joint of your arm. Anyone can experience elbow joint pain. And you can have elbow pain on the inside or on the outside of the joint. Usually, elbow pain causes include an injury, such as a blow to the elbow, or inflammation of the elbow joint.

Oftentimes, injury or inflammation of the elbow is a result of a sports injury or a repetitive use injury (overuse injury), such as tennis elbow. In mild cases, elbow pain may result from wear and tear on your elbow joint. Severe cases of elbow pain may result from a broken bone. Other, less common causes of elbow pain include skin growths, such as cysts or tumors, or infection of the elbow.

Elbow pain treatment is dependent on the cause. In mild cases, resting the elbow and using home treatments, such as cold compresses, and over-the-counter pain medications may be adequate. In serious cases, elbow pain may require physical therapy, prescription drugs, or even surgery.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have elbow pain in conjunction with a broken bone, paralysis, or numbness of the limb below the elbow, or excessive bleeding.

If your elbow pain is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with elbow pain?

Elbow pain may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Musculoskeletal symptoms that may occur along with elbow pain

Elbow pain may accompany other symptoms affecting the muscles, tendons, bones and cartilage including:

  • Redness, warmth or swelling
  • Reduced mobility (range of motion of a joint)
  • Tenderness
  • Visible deformity of the elbow

Other symptoms that may occur along with elbow pain

Elbow pain may accompany other symptoms including:

  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Itching feeling

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, elbow pain may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have elbow pain along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Paralysis
  • Severe bleeding
  • Sudden, intense elbow pain
  • Visible deformity of the joint that has a sudden onset

What causes elbow pain?

Elbow pain is caused by damage to the muscles, tendons, bones, or other tissues that make up the elbow joint. Generally, elbow pain is caused by inflammation or an injury, such as a blow to the elbow or an overuse injury. Less commonly, elbow pain may be related to an infection, a growth, a pinched nerve, or even cancer.

Common causes of elbow pain

Elbow pain is often caused by an injury to the elbow or an inflammation of the elbow including:

  • Bursitis (inflammation of a bursa sac that cushions a joint)
  • Bone fracture
  • Dislocation
  • Sports injuries

Other causes of elbow pain

Elbow pain can also be caused by a variety of systemic conditions including:

  • Cyst (benign sac that contains fluid, air, or other materials)
  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)
  • Infection in the elbow
  • Nerve entrapment or compression, such as of the ulnar nerve in the arm
  • Surgery

Serious or life-threatening causes of elbow pain

In some cases, elbow pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Tumor

When should you see a doctor for elbow pain?

Minor elbow pain will often resolve with self-care measures. However, there are times when seeing a doctor about elbow pain is best. Make an appointment with your doctor if you have mild elbow pain that persists despite home treatment. You should also see your doctor if you have mild elbow pain even at rest or worsening elbow pain.

See a doctor promptly when:

  • Elbow pain is severe.
  • Elbow pain occurs with increasing swelling, redness or bruising around the joint.
  • You have limited movement in the elbow joint or affected arm.
  • You have trouble rotating your palm up and down.

Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for elbow pain when:

  • There is an obvious elbow or arm deformity or a bone is protruding through the skin.
  • You cannot use the affected arm at all.
  • You have a fever, along with redness, swelling and warmth around the joint.
  • You have sustained an elbow injury or trauma to the elbow.
  • Your arm, hand or fingers have lost sensation.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of elbow pain?

To diagnose the underlying cause of elbow pain, doctors will take a medical history, perform an exam, and sometimes order tests.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of elbow pain

Your doctor may ask you several questions related to your elbow pain including:

  • How long have you felt pain in your elbow?
  • Where exactly do you feel the pain? On the inside (medial) or outside (lateral) of the elbow?
  • Do you have any other symptoms, such as numbness or limited movement?
  • Do you have arthritis or other medical conditions?
  • What kinds of physical activities or sports do you play?
  • What kind of work do you do?
  • Do you use your elbow frequently?
  • Have you had a recent injury?
  • What makes your elbow pain feel worse or better?

The physical exam may involve:

  • Checking for cuts, bruises, and other skin wounds
  • Feeling the elbow for abnormalities and pinpointing places of pain or tenderness
  • Taking a wrist pulse to verify blood flow to the hands
  • Testing muscle strength, stability, and range of motion

Doctors may compare the painful elbow to the other elbow, as well as examine the shoulder. The results of the exam will help doctors determine whether imaging exams or other tests are necessary. Testing may include:

  • Joint aspiration to remove fluid, if it is present in excess, and examine it for signs of infection or gout
  • Joint X-ray to look for fractures, bone spurs, or other bone abnormalities

It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your provider is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.

How do you treat elbow pain?

Elbow pain is a symptom of a problem, so treating it depends on the underlying cause and the severity of the pain. Treatment goals include relieving pain and correcting any physical problem at the root of the pain. Doctors generally start with conservative treatments first for mild to moderate elbow pain. This may include:

  • Immobilization with a sling or splint to allow the joint to rest and heal 
  • Medications to relieve pain and swelling, including NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), and corticosteroid joint injections 
  • Rest, ice and elevation to relieve pain and reduce swelling due to minor injuries

Physical therapy can also help treat elbow pain and recover from elbow injuries. The goal is to restore strength, stability and flexibility to the elbow joint. Physical therapists also have several methods of relieving joint and muscle pain. This may include heat and cold therapy, ultrasound stimulation, and TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation).

Sometimes, surgery or arthroscopy is necessary to treat the underlying cause of elbow pain. Often, it is only an option after other treatments fail to provide relief. However, it may be the preferred treatment option for certain injuries, such as dislocations and open fractures.

Elbows can take several months to heal, depending on the underlying problem. Ask your healthcare provider, including your physical therapist or acupuncturist, what to expect with healing and pain relief.

Home remedies for elbow pain

Home treatment can be effective for minor elbow pain. Elbow pain home remedies include:

  • Rest: Avoid activities that make elbow pain worse or that caused the injury. Give the elbow time to heal before returning to these activities. See your doctor if pain recurs when you resume an activity.
  • Ice: Apply an ice pack to the elbow for 20 minutes at a time and repeat several times a day for the first 24 hours. 
  • Elevation: Keep your arm elevated above your heart. This will help reduce swelling.
  • Heat: After the first 24 hours, you can use heat if it feels better than ice. Apply a heating pad or hot water bottle several times a day.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers: Take NSAIDs to relieve pain and swelling from minor injuries. If you cannot take NSAIDs, acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help with pain. It will not help inflammation.
  • Protection: Wear elbow pads to protect the joint from bumps and other injuries. 

Alternative treatments for elbow pain

Glucosamine and chondroitin is a popular supplement for joint pain due to osteoarthritis (OA). Studies have not consistently demonstrated a benefit and the results have been mixed. As far as safety, it seems to be safe for most people. So, it may be a reasonable add-on therapy for OA pain in the elbow.

Another popular alternative treatment for joint pain is acupuncture. Research suggests it may be especially helpful for people with tennis elbow. However, the biggest effect is in the short-term. It does not appear to be long-lasting. This may mean it can be beneficial as add-on treatment in the acute phase of elbow pain.

Talk with your doctor before using any alternative treatments to make sure there is not a reason to avoid the treatment.

What are the potential complications of elbow pain?

Oftentimes, elbow pain is mild and will resolve on its own. Mild and moderate elbow pain may improve after treatment with cold compresses or pain medication. In serious cases, such as a fractured bone, more invasive treatment may be required.

Because elbow pain can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Permanent joint immobility
  • Permanent joint instability
  • Permanent loss of sensation
  • Permanent nerve damage (due to a pinched nerve), including paralysis
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 27
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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