Your Guide to Understanding Elbow Pain

If you want to fully understand elbow pain, you are in the right place! This Fix My Elbow guide covers everything you need to know.

How To Diagnose Elbow Pain

If you are experiencing elbow pain, there are several possible causes. Doctors often find that elbow pain is caused by strained or enflamed tissue and ligaments in the elbow and surrounding muscles, usually from overuse.


Athletes, manual labourers, musicians, and people who work with their hands often struggle with elbow pain. The pain is most often felt on the outside of the elbow and forearm and – in some cases – can radiate up the forearm, wrist, and hand. 


Pain may vary from patient to patient, and depending on the severity, it could require medical attention. 


This article will outline details about the kinds of elbow pain and what they could mean –including diagnosing elbow pain.

Elbow Anatomy

The elbow is a joint that includes three bones – the humerus, ulna, and radius. The humerus is the upper arm bone, and the radius and ulna are in your forearm. The bony point at the end of the elbow is the lateral epicondyle. 


The lateral epicondyle is on the outside of your arm, and the medial epicondyle is on the inside of your arm. Depending on your injury, straining one of these can lead to a different diagnosis. 

Tendons, ligaments, and muscles line the humerus, ulna, and radius to reduce friction and keep bones together. 


The elbow joint is protected by ligaments, providing stability and strength around the joint. Elbow muscles are also attached to the humerus, ulna, and radius to help control the use of your wrist, hand, and fingers. 


When a patient experiences elbow pain, it’s likely a strained or pulled tendon or ligament surrounding the joint. 


Many muscles of the upper and lower arm cross or are part of the elbow, which is why it’s the most injured joint after the shoulder when playing sports.

Different Types of Elbow Pain

Pain is experienced differently by different people, but there are some common types of elbow pain that patients describe:


  • Pain or burning on the outer or inner part of the elbow

  • Soreness of the elbow or forearm

  • Stiffness of the elbow and forearm 

  • Weak grip strength of the hand

  • Pain when gripping or holding items or when putting pressure on the forearm 

  • Tingling of the elbow 

  • Numbness of the elbow

  • Swelling or tenderness of the elbow

  • Inability to bend elbow or loss of range of motion

Types of Elbow Joint Injuries

All the above pain symptoms are often experienced by patients who have strained their elbow and forearm from overuse.


The kind of injury often depends on where the pain is coming from.


Below are some of the conditions or injuries associated with elbow pain.

Medial epicondylitis - ‘golf elbow’

Medial epicondylitis is known as “golfer’s elbow” and affects the inner tendons of the elbow. Patients report pain, stiffness, and weakness on the inside of the elbow hurt radiating to the wrist and hand.


It is caused by repetitive motions like swinging a golf club or a hammer. Medial epicondylitis got its name for being a golf-related injury but is more common amongst people putting additional strain on their wrist and hands.

Lateral epicondylitis - ‘tennis elbow’

Lateral epicondylitis is known as “tennis elbow” and affects the outer tendons and outside of the elbow.


Like a golfer’s elbow, a tennis elbow is caused by repetitive motions in which extra strain is being placed on the wrist and forearm over extended periods.


While it got its name as a tennis injury, tennis elbow is far more common among manual labourers like plumbers, painters, or machine workers.


Symptoms are similar to the golfer’s elbow, but the lateral elbow pain is on the exterior side of the elbow.


Patients report pain or burning on the outer side of the elbow and difficulty gripping or holding things when suffering from tennis elbow.

Bursitis

Bursitis is a condition that causes aches or pain in the elbow or other areas like the shoulder or hip. It’s caused when tiny, fluid-filled sacs called bursae that cushion the bones and muscles near joints become inflamed from repetitive motion.


Symptoms include pain and aches at the joint site, and the joint may look swollen and red. Much like how golf and tennis elbow hurt, once a patient experiences bursitis, they are more likely to experience it again.

Arthritis

Arthritis is more common in older patients. Arthritis in the elbow means the joint is inflamed and will likely feel painful and swollen. In addition to pain and swelling, arthritis patients also report stiffness of the elbow, lack of full movement, or even locking in place.

Trapped or Pinched Nerves

The ulnar nerve is the most common nerve pinched in the elbow since it’s so close to the joint.


Symptoms of a pinched or trapped nerve include tingling, burning, or numbness in the fingers and hands that can spread down the forearm and cause pain. There are several different types of syndromes caused by pinched nerves, but all have similar symptoms.

Ligament Strain or Sprain

A ligament strain or sprain is similarly caused by repeated stress on the elbow and forearm. This can lead to stretching or tearing of the ligaments that protect the elbow joint.


Symptoms associated with a ligament strain or sprain include pain, swelling, or bruising of the elbow, popping sound when moving your elbow, and difficulty bending and straightening your elbow. In some severe cases, doctors might recommend surgery.

Dislocated Elbow or Fractured Elbow

A dislocated elbow is often caused by a trauma or sudden blow like breaking your fall with your arm or being swung, and the elbow joint gets knocked out of place.


A fractured elbow is caused when a bone breaks at the elbow. It’s most common in a car accident or sports injury. Patients report a pop or snap at the time of injury, intense pain with movement of the elbow, and swelling or bruising of the elbow.


Dislocation or fracture often both require medical attention.

Osteochondritis Dissecans

This disorder is also known as Panner’s disease. It occurs when small pieces of cartilage and bone become dislodged from the elbow joint due to lack of blood flow. It’s more common in sports injuries or young children and teens.


Symptoms of Panner’s disease include tenderness of the elbow, difficulty extending the arm, or feeling like the elbow joint is locking.


Doctors don’t know for sure what causes the condition but believe that repetitive stress or trauma to the elbow joint over time does contribute to it. It can also develop after an injury. In rare cases, surgery might be necessary.

Who struggles with elbow pain?

Although golfers, baseball pitchers, tennis players, and boxers often have elbow disorders, chronic pain is most common amongst manual labourers. Plumbers, carpenters, machinists, painters, typists, and others who put extra pressure on their hands and wrists suffer the most from elbow pain.

How long does elbow pain last?

Depending on the level of injury and elbow pain treatment used, elbow pain can last anywhere from a few weeks to a year. However, elbow pain can become chronic due to their regular work for people who use their hands regularly and are conducting repetitive motions.

Conclusion

This article outlined the different kinds of elbow pain and the conditions associated with each type of pain. Hopefully, it provided helpful information for diagnosing pain. Elbow pain does not require surgery in most cases, but you can read more about elbow pain treatment options here at Fix My Elbow.

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