What May Cause Your Elbow Pain

Elbow pain is common. It also has the potential to greatly impact your daily life, making even the simplest tasks feel unbearable.

Elbow pain can lead to reduced mobility in the elbow joint, affecting your ability to enjoy everyday activities. That’s why seeking early treatment for it is vital.

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Elbow Pain Reasons

Your elbow joint is where three bones come together. These are your upper arm bone (humerus) and your ulna and radius, the two bones that make up your forearm.

Cartilage surrounds this joint. Ligaments hold it in place. Tendons connect it to your muscles, allowing your arm to move in different ways.

The balance and relationship between each of these parts are crucial for elbow function. Upsetting that balance can lead to discomfort.

There are a variety of reasons for elbow pain. These can include overuse or injury and underlying medical conditions. However, most elbow injuries fall into two categories — either acute or chronic.

Acute injury

A fall, a jarring movement, or a direct blow to the elbow are all possible causes of an acute injury. It can also occur from a lifting injury, which may result in a tearing or popping sensation.

“If someone sustains a fall and has severe pain in the elbow, they should seek urgent care to rule out a fracture,” says Casey Kiser, MD. (Dr. Kiser is an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in shoulder and elbow surgery.) “If they feel a pop or tearing sensation in the elbow, that can be a sign of a ligament or tendon tear.”

Chronic injury

Though acute injuries may result from a specific incident, chronic elbow injuries can stem from various causes.

This type of injury often results from overuse or repetitive motion. Many jobs, hobbies, and activities require repetitive movements of the hand, wrist, or arm.

These can lead to elbow pain. Overuse injuries can also occur after a lifestyle change such as a large increase in exercise or activity.

“If a patient’s elbow injury is more chronic in nature and continues to worsen despite basic conservative treatments like ice, rest, and activity modification, then it may be time to have it evaluated,” says Dr. Kiser.

Some may also develop arthritis of the elbow joint, though this is much rarer.

Common Elbow Injuries

Elbow pain can present itself in many ways. These include tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, and bursitis.

Understanding the distinct symptoms and causes of each condition can help pinpoint the reason for your discomfort. It can also tell you how best to treat it.

Tennis elbow

Lateral epicondylitis — or tennis elbow — is one of the most common elbow injuries. It’s an overuse injury that causes inflammation or degeneration of the tendons on the outside of the forearm. These tendons allow you to extend and lift your hand.

“Patients with tennis elbow will feel pain in the lateral side of their elbow, where it could radiate into their forearm causing discomfort when gripping or lifting,” says Dr. Kiser. “It’s one of the most common conditions that I treat.”

Medications, bracing, and injections are typical treatments for tennis elbow. It doesn’t usually require surgery. However, those who have exhausted all non-operative measures may end up needing surgery.

Golfer’s elbow

Golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis) is also an overuse injury. It causes inflammation of the muscle on the inside of the elbow and is very painful. This pain can run from the bony point of your elbow far into your forearm.

Although it’s a common golf injury, it doesn’t happen only to golfers. Any activity that requires repetitive forearm movement — such as using a screwdriver or painting — can also cause golfer’s elbow.

Conservative treatments like rest, ice, and stretching can help. You can also take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) to reduce elbow pain and inflammation.

Elbow fractures

Elbow fractures can often occur from falls because people often brace a fall with the elbow. A fractured elbow may make it impossible to straighten the arm. Pain, swelling, and bruising are common results of this.

Non-operative immobilization can treat some fractures. However, having the best possible outcome often requires surgery. Treatment is case by case depending on the fracture and its severity.

Tendon injuries

Many people may experience a torn tendon. This can include a distal bicep tendon tear or distal tricep tendon tears.

These can prove common among middle-aged men. They usually present as a pop or tear in the elbow while lifting something heavy.

“A bicep tear can be common for people when heavy lifting, especially when they take on too much weight at once,” says Dr. Kiser. “Once they realize that it’s heavier than they expected, they may feel a tear or a pop.”

Biceps and triceps tendon tears usually require surgery to ensure the best outcome and recovery.

How to Prevent Elbow Pain

Though elbow pain can prove common, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of sustaining an elbow injury.

Making simple adjustments to everyday behaviors and activities can go a long way. To prevent elbow injury, try to follow these tips:

  • Avoid lifting more than you can handle.
  • Avoid overuse by taking breaks.
  • Don’t push through pain.
  • Lift in an ergonomic way.
  • Minimize your fall risk.

“The best way to prevent elbow injuries is to be smart with your activity,” says Dr. Kiser.

“Minimize your fall risk as best you can and don’t lift more than you need to. Stop thinking, ‘No pain, no gain.’ It doesn’t work and it only propagates the inflammation.”

At the gym, for example, try to work in more reps with less weight instead of overlifting and causing injury.

“If you’re doing something and it’s hurting, don’t push through that pain. Back off and find a different way,” says Dr. Kiser. “And if the pain persists, consider talking to your health care provider.”

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Orthopaedic Care

When you are dealing with bone, muscle, or joint pain, it can affect your daily life. UPMC Orthopaedic Care can help. As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, we diagnose and treat a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. We provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. Our multidisciplinary team of experts will work with you to develop the treatment plan that works best for you. Our care team uses the most innovative tools and techniques to provide better outcomes. We also are leaders in research and clinical trials, striving to find better ways to provide our patients care. With locations throughout our communities, you can find a provider near you.