Elbow Arthritis: Symptoms and Treatment of Arthritis Elbow Pain

Older blonde woman experiencing elbow pain while physical therapist examines

Are you experiencing pain in your elbow? Some elbow pain is caused by straining the soft tissues surrounding the joint, including tendons or ligaments. This kind of pain will likely heal within a few days of resting it.i But you may be surprised to learn that it could be a symptom of arthritis.

Find out how to distinguish if osteoarthritis is the root cause of your elbow pain and how to relieve it.

Causes of Elbow Arthritis

  • Osteoarthritis in the elbow occurs because of wear or damage to the cartilage surface of the elbow joint.ii This cartilage sits on the end of the bones and it allows the bones to move smoothly in the joint. Osteoarthritis has a number of causes or risk factors including, but not limited to, aging, genetics and injury to the joint. Osteoarthritis is also more likely to develop as you get older, over many years. In fact, about 80% of older adults, above 55 years of age, have evidence of osteoarthritis on X-ray.iii Genes also play a role in the development of arthritis. Research has found that people who have a family member with osteoarthritis are more likely to develop the disease.iv Joint injuries, such as sports related injuries can also cause arthritis. Arthritis may develop years after the injury has healed.v

Symptoms of Elbow Arthritis

Elbow arthritis symptoms can include one or more of the following:vi

  • Pain. With osteoarthritis, the elbow pain may worsen when extending your arm, or it could continue at night and at rest.
  • Swollen, warm, or tender joint.
  • Instability.
  • Loss of range of motion.
  • Stiffness that is worse in the morning and after periods of inactivity.
  • Locking. This often occurs with osteoarthritis if scar tissue develops.

When to See a Doctor Because of Elbow Pain

You shouldn’t have to live with elbow pain. The pain may be something you can manage, but at some point, you may need to seek medical attention. This is especially true if your pain doesn’t improve within two weeks of rest, if you haven’t had an injury or any kind of infection, or if you have any tingling, numbness, or weakness in your hand or arm.vii You may need emergency care if the pain comes on suddenly and it prevents you from moving your arm, if the pain is accompanied by fever and redness, or if you think you have fractured your elbow.

Treatment for Elbow Arthritis

Many people may prefer to avoid a surgical treatment option for elbow arthritis, especially if the arthritis is in its early stages. Depending on the severity of the elbow arthritis, you may be able to treat your symptoms with nonsurgical options, like:viii

  • Reduce activity. Overuse and repetitive movements can cause and aggravate osteoarthritis, so ensuring rest periods is important to relieving stress on the joint as well as reducing pain.
  • Oral NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen are good options for temporary pain relief.
  • Topical NSAIDs. Using a product like Voltaren Gel targets pain at the source and is absorbed through the skin, rather than taking an oral NSAID that is absorbed through the stomach.
  • Physical therapy. Seeing a physical therapist or an occupational therapist can give you the knowledge for learning how to move to avoid making your symptoms worse.ix They can also teach you particular exercises to strengthen the muscles around your joints. Other forms of physical therapy include using ice packs or heating pads to reduce swelling and splints to reduce movement.

If the arthritis pain does not respond to the above treatment options, your doctor may suggest surgery. types of surgical treatments for elbow arthritis include:x

  • Arthroscopy. This method uses a small instrument to remove bone spurs, fragments of cartilage, or part of the diseased joint.
  • Arthroplasty. In this surgery, the surgeon makes an artificial joint with either an internal prosthesis or external device.

Living with elbow arthritis can be a challenge. No matter what has caused your elbow arthritis, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, and seek out treatments to relieve your pain and treat the root causes of your elbow arthritis.

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