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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

Causes

Elbow pain can be caused by many problems. A common cause in adults is tendinitis. This is inflammation and injury to the tendons, which are 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. 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 when they try 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 or you cannot move the elbow, call your health care provider.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

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 Office Visit

Your health care provider 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 getting better on its own?
  • Did the pain begin after an injury?
  • What makes the pain better or worse?

Treatment depends on the cause, but may involve:

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

References

Kane SF, Lynch JH, Taylor JC. Evaluation of elbow pain in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89:649-657.

Regan WD, Morrey BF. Physical examination of the elbow. In: Morrey BF, Sanchez-Sotelo J, eds. The Elbow and Its Disorders. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2004:chap 4.

Review Date:9/8/2014
Reviewed By:C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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