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Elbow Pain and Disorders

Elbow Disorder Basics

If you have elbow pain, a number of disorders could be the culprit. Overuse and sports injuries cause many elbow conditions. For example, golfers, baseball pitchers, tennis players, and boxers often have elbow disorders.

Elbow disorders may involve arm muscles, elbow ligaments, tendons, and bones in the arm. The treatments for elbow disorders depend on the underlying cause.

What Are the Different Types of Elbow Disorders?

Medial Epicondylitis

This affects the inner tendon in the elbow and is commonly called “golfer’s elbow” and “little leaguer’s elbow.” The repetitive throwing motion used in baseball or the downward swing of a golf club is a common cause.

Medial epicondylitis can also be the result of repetitive hand motion, such as swinging a hammer every day at work. This disorder can cause pain along the inside of the elbow. Wrist movements can especially trigger pain. This condition usually improves with rest and conventional treatment methods, such as icing or over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory drugs (ex. ibuprofen).

Lateral Epicondylitis

Another name for lateral epicondylitis is “tennis elbow.” It affects the tendon on the outside of the elbow. Playing racquet sports or working in certain professions that use the same sort of motion can cause this condition. Professionals who commonly experience lateral epicondylitis include:

  • cooks
  • painters
  • carpenters
  • autoworkers
  • plumbers

Symptoms such as pain or burning occur along the outside of the elbow. You also may experience problems with gripping. These symptoms usually improve with rest, physical therapy, or the use of a brace (tennis elbow strap).

Olecranon Bursitis

Common names for olecranon bursitis are “student’s elbow,” “miner’s elbow,” and “draftman’s elbow.” Bursitis affects bursae, small sacs of fluid that help protect and lubricate the joints. Olecranon bursitis affects the bursae protecting the pointy bone of the elbow. It may be caused by a blow to the elbow, leaning on the elbow for a prolonged period of time, infection, or medical conditions like arthritis.

Symptoms include swelling, pain, and difficulty moving the elbow. Redness and warmth may occur in the case of an infection. Medication and wearing elbow pads treat this condition. Surgery may be necessary in severe and chronic cases.


Osteoarthritis is a condition that affects the cartilage, a type of connective tissue found in joints. Osteoarthritis causes this tissue to wear down and become damaged. An elbow injury or wear and tear on the joints may cause osteoarthritis.

Symptoms include

  • pain
  • difficulty bending the elbow
  • a locking sensation in the elbow
  • a grating sound with movement
  • swelling

Medication and physical therapy usually treat osteoarthritis. Surgery, including joint replacement, is an option in more severe cases.

Dislocation or Fracture of the Elbow

An injury to the elbow, such as a fall on an outstretched arm or elbow, can cause dislocation or a fracture. Dislocation occurs when a bone moves from its usual position, and a fracture happens when a bone cracks or breaks.

Symptoms include:

  • visual changes to the elbow, such as swelling and discoloration
  • inability to move the joint
  • pain

A doctor can move the dislocated bone back into place. They’ll place the dislocated or fractured elbow in a splint or cast, and give you medication for pain and swelling. Physical therapy will help restore the range of motion after the splint or cast is removed.

Ligament Strains and Sprains

Ligament problems can occur in any of the ligaments located in the elbow joint. Ligament sprains and strains can occur due to trauma or as a result of repeated stress. The ligament may be stretched, partially torn, or completely torn. Sometimes you’ll hear a popping noise upon injury.

Symptoms include:

  • pain
  • joint instability
  • swelling
  • problems with range of motion

Treatment may include rest, pain relief methods like icing, bracing, and physical therapy.

Osteochondritis Dissecans

Also called Panner’s disease, this condition occurs when small pieces of cartilage and bone become dislodged in the elbow joint. It’s often the result of a sports injury to the elbow and occurs most often in young men.

Pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow, trouble extending the arm, and a feeling that the joint is locking could indicate this condition. You can treat this injury by immobilizing the elbow joint and going to physical therapy.

How Are Elbow Disorders Diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose elbow disorders through a number of methods, including:

  • physical examination and history
  • X-rays
  • computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • electromyography (EMG)
  • biopsy of bursa fluid

How Are Elbow Disorders Treated?

Treatment varies, depending on the elbow disorder and symptoms you experience. Most elbow disorders require conservative treatment. Surgery is a last resort if your symptoms don’t improve.

Your treatment options include:

  • ice
  • rest
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • physical therapy
  • bracing or immobilization
  • steroid injections
  • elbow padding
  • surgical treatments

Prevention of Elbow Disorders

Most elbow disorders are the result of overuse and injury. You can prevent them by:

  • correcting improper sports techniques
  • using a proper-sized grip on sports equipment
  • using proper tension on racquets
  • warming up and stretching properly
  • using elbow padding 

It’s also important to take breaks from repetitive tasks and practice exercises that can help strengthen the muscles around your elbow joint. Talk to your doctor for advice and recommendations.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Danielle Moores
Published on: Sep 24, 2015on: Jul 11, 2017

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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