Elbow pain usually isn't serious. But because you use your elbow in so many ways, elbow pain can be a problem. Your elbow is a complex joint. It allows you to stretch out and bend your arm and turn your hand and forearm. As you often combine these movements, you may have a hard time describing exactly which movement brings on the pain.
Elbow pain may come and go, get worse with movement, or may be constant. It may feel like sharp or aching pain or cause tingling or numbness in your arm and hand. Sometimes elbow pain is caused by a problem in your neck or upper spine or in your shoulder.
Elbow pain is often caused by overuse or injury. Many sports, hobbies and jobs require repetitive hand, wrist or arm movements. Elbow pain can be the result of problems with bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments or joints. Elbow pain may occasionally be due to arthritis. But in general, your elbow joint is much less likely to have wear-and-tear damage than are many other joints.
Common causes of elbow pain include:
- Broken arm
- Bursitis (A condition in which small sacs that cushion the bones, tendons and muscles near joints become inflamed.)
- Cervical disc herniation
- Dislocated elbow
- Golfer's elbow
- Osteoarthritis (The most common type of arthritis.)
- Osteochondritis dissecans
- Reactive arthritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Septic arthritis
- Shoulder problems
- Sprains (Stretching or tearing of a tissue band called a ligament, which connects two bones together in a joint.)
- Stress fractures (Tiny cracks in a bone.)
- Tendinitis (A condition that happens when swelling called inflammation affects a tendon.)
- Tennis elbow
- Throwing injuries
- Trapped nerves
When to see a doctor
Get medical help right away or go to the emergency room if you have:
- An unusual angle or severe change in your elbow, especially if you also have bleeding or other injuries.
- A bone that you can see.
See your health care provider as soon as possible if you have:
- A sudden injury to your elbow, especially if you hear a snap or cracking sound.
- Severe pain, swelling and bruising around the joint.
- Trouble moving your elbow or using your arm as you usually can or turning your arm from palm up to palm down and back again.
Make an appointment with your health care provider if you have:
- Elbow pain that doesn't get better after care at home.
- Pain that occurs even when you're not using your arm.
- Worsening redness, swelling or pain in the elbow.
Most elbow pain improves with care at home using P.R.I.C.E. treatment:
- Protect. Keep the area from getting more injury with a brace or splint.
- Rest. Avoid the activity that caused your injury. Then begin mild use and stretching as recommended by your health care provider.
- Ice. Place an ice pack on the sore area for 15 to 20 minutes three times a day.
- Compression. Use a stretchy bandage, sleeve or wrap around the area to reduce swelling and provide support.
- Elevation. Keep your arm raised to help lessen swelling.
Try pain relievers you can buy without a prescription. Products you put on your skin, such as creams, patches and gels, may help. Some examples are products that include menthol, lidocaine or diclofenac sodium (Voltaren Arthritis Pain). You also can try oral pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve).