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At one time or another, everyone has had an elbow problem that may have caused pain or swelling. Most of the time our body movements do not cause problems, but it's not surprising that symptoms develop from everyday wear and tear or overuse.
Elbow problems can be minor or serious and may include symptoms such as pain, swelling, numbness, tingling, weakness, or changes in temperature or colour. Home treatment often can relieve minor aches and pains. To better understand elbow problems, you may want to review the structure and function of the elbow. See a picture of the elbow.
Conditions that may cause elbow symptoms
- Osteoarthritis may cause pain that is worse in the morning but improves during the day. Other types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and lupus, can also affect the elbow.
- A pinched nerve can cause elbow pain with numbness and tingling.
- A problem elsewhere in the body, such as a heart attack, can cause referred pain in the elbow.
Overuse elbow problems
Most people may not remember having a specific injury when their symptoms get worse over time, but overuse problems are actual injuries. They occur when too much stress is placed on a joint or other tissue, often when you overdo an activity or repeat an activity over and over. Overuse injuries include:
- Bursitis. Swelling behind the elbow may be olecranon bursitis (Popeye elbow).
- Tendinosis, which is a series of microtears in the connective tissue in or around the tendon.
- Soreness or pain felt on the outside (lateral) part of the elbow may be tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis). This is the most common type of tendinopathy that affects the elbow and most often is caused by overuse of the forearm muscles. This overuse may occur during sports, such as tennis, swimming, golf, and sports involving throwing; jobs, such as carpentry or plumbing; or daily activities, such as lifting objects or gardening.
- Soreness or pain in the inner (medial) part of the elbow may be golfer's elbow. In children who participate in sports that involve throwing, the same elbow pain may be described as Little Leaguer's elbow.
- Ulnar nerve compression, which is the pinching of the ulnar nerve in the elbow joint. This usually occurs with repeated motions.
Treatment for an elbow problem may include first aid measures; application of a brace, splint, or cast; physiotherapy; or medicine.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or non-binary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines and natural health products can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
When an area turns blue, very pale, or cold, it can mean that there has been a sudden change in the blood supply to the area. This can be serious.
There are other reasons for colour and temperature changes. Bruises often look blue. A limb may turn blue or pale if you leave it in one position for too long, but its normal colour returns after you move it. What you are looking for is a change in how the area looks (it turns blue or pale) and feels (it becomes cold to the touch), and this change does not go away.
Pain in adults and older children
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
Pain in children under 3 years
It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
Pain in children 3 years and older
- Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the child can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain. No one can tolerate severe pain for more than a few hours.
- Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt the child's normal activities and sleep, but the child can tolerate it for hours or days.
- Mild pain (1 to 4): The child notices and may complain of the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt his or her sleep or activities.
Symptoms of infection may include:
- Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
- Red streaks leading from the area.
- Pus draining from the area.
- A fever.
Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:
- Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
- Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
- Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
- Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
- Medicines taken after organ transplant.
- Not having a spleen.
Make an Appointment
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
- Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
- If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
- If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Seek Care Today
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
- Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
- If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
- If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
- Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
- If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
- You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
- You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
- You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Most minor elbow problems go away on their own. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your symptoms.
Home treatment for minor problems
Home treatment may help relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness.
- If you have swelling, remove all rings, bracelets, watches, or any other jewellery that goes around your wrist or fingers of the affected arm. It will be harder to remove the jewellery later if swelling increases.
- Use rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) to treat pain and swelling.
- Wear a sling if it makes you more comfortable and supports your elbow. If you feel you need to use a sling for longer than 48 hours, discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
- An elbow support, such as an elbow sleeve, forearm wrap, or arm sling, may help rest your elbow joint, relieve stress on forearm muscles, and protect the joint area during an activity. A counterforce brace may be helpful for tennis elbow symptoms. Follow the manufacturer's directions for using the brace.
- Gently massage or rub the area to relieve pain and encourage blood flow. Do not massage the elbow if it causes pain.
- After 48 to 72 hours, if swelling is gone, apply heat and begin gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help restore and maintain flexibility. Some experts recommend alternating between hot and cold treatments.
- Do not smoke. Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Try a non-prescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a non-prescription medicine:
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
- Pain or swelling develops.
- Signs of infection develop.
- Numbness, tingling, or cool, pale, skin develops.
- Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.
The following tips may prevent elbow problems.
General prevention tips
- Don't carry objects that are too heavy.
- Stretch before and after physical exercise, sports, or recreational activities to warm up your muscles.
- Do stretching and range-of-motion (ROM) exercises with your fingers and wrist to prevent stiffening of the tendons that affect your elbows. Gently bend, straighten, and rotate your wrist. If you have any pain, stop the exercises.
- Use the correct techniques (movements) or positions during activities so that you do not strain your muscles.
- Avoid overusing your arm doing repeated movements that can injure your bursa or tendons. In daily routines or hobbies, examine activities in which you make repeated arm movements.
- Take lessons to learn the proper technique for sports. Have a trainer or person who is familiar with sports equipment check your equipment to see if it is well suited for your level of ability, body size, and body strength.
- If you feel that activities at your workplace are causing pain or soreness from overuse, call your human resources department for information on alternative ways of doing your job or to discuss equipment modifications or other job assignments.
Preparing For Your Appointment
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
- What are your main symptoms?
- How long have you had your symptoms?
- What were you doing when your symptoms started?
- Have you had this problem in the past? If so, do you know what caused the problem at that time? How was it treated?
- What activities related to sports, work, or your lifestyle make your symptoms better or worse?
- What home treatment measures have you tried? Did home treatment help?
- What prescription and non-prescription medicines have you taken? Did they help?
- Do you have any health risks?
Current as of: June 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor MD - Emergency Medicine