Elbow pain: the symptoms and treatments

Elbow pain is often caused by overuse of muscles in your forearm near your elbow.

Tennis elbow is the most common cause of pain around your elbow and in your forearm. While you can get it playing tennis, there are many other ways you can hurt it. [1]Footnote 1

 

What causes elbow pain (tennis elbow)?

It’s usually caused by repeated movements and overuse of the muscles in your forearm, near your elbow joint.

The main tendon develops tiny tears that worsen gradually as the tendon thickens and swells.

Playing sport, sudden periods of heavy lifting – for example if you’re lifting boxes when moving house - or even rocking a baby can bring on tennis elbow.
 

Symptoms of tennis elbow

There are a number of symptoms that are a sign of tennis elbow. Don’t be fooled by the ‘elbow’ in the name - you might feel pain or a burning sensation in your arm and around the elbow, that travels down your forearm.

  • You might notice your arm hurts when you’re lifting or bending it.
  • It might be difficult and painful to fully extend your arm.
  • The pain may get worse when you’re gripping something small or undoing a screw cap.
  • If you touch your elbow and the area around it may feel painful and tender.

Depending on the severity, the pain can be mild or severe enough to keep you awake at night.

 

Diagnosis of tennis elbow

Try and rest your arm and avoid activity that makes the pain worse. If after a few days it’s not getting better, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.

Your doctor will check your elbow and feel around the joint to locate the pain and tenderness. They’ll do some simple tests to see how flexible your wrist and fingers are, and how much you can stretch your arm out.

If they think you need further diagnosis, they may refer you for an imaging scan such as an MRI or ultrasound for more detailed images of the area around your elbow.

 

Treatment for tennis elbow

Tennis elbow usually gets better on its own but it can take time. It can last between 6 months and 2 years, so you’ll need to make sure you know what to do to help with your recovery.

Self-help

Depending on its severity it might get better with rest and over-the-counter painkillers.

Holding something cold against the arm a few times a day can also be effective at reducing the inflammation and numbing the pain. You can wrap a bag of frozen vegetables in a tea towel if you don’t have a cold compress in your freezer.[1]Footnote 1

Medical help

If your tennis elbow isn’t getting better, your doctor may give you a steroid injection to reduce inflammation and ease the symptoms.

The doctor may also recommend physiotherapy. Your physiotherapist will massage your arm and manipulate it to try and improve the range of movement.

Surgery to repair the tendon is a last resort if your tendon is badly damaged and won’t heal naturally.

 

How to prevent tennis elbow?

There’s several ways you can reduce the risk of having tennis elbow:

  • It can return, so avoiding or doing in moderation, the activity that caused it is a good idea.
  • If it’s a sports injury, then make sure you’re using the right technique. Speak with a fitness professional if you’re unsure.
  • Warming up properly with gentle stretching will mean less pressure on your elbow.
  • If it’s a work injury then requesting lifting training and using lighter equipment will help.

 

Other types of elbow pain

There are several other types of elbow disorders:

Olecranon bursitis

Bursae are small sacs of fluid that help protect the joints. The olecranon is the bony bit of the elbow that sticks out and if this bit swells and becomes hot and painful, you could have bursitis.

Often called student’s, or draftsman’s elbow, it can be caused by a blow to your elbow, leaning on it for long periods, or an infection.

You can treat it with painkillers and antibiotics but in severe cases surgery may be necessary.

Medial epicondylitis

Often called golfer’s elbow, it is pain along the inside of the elbow caused by repetitive movements of the hand. It could be from the downward swing of a golf club or using tools at work, such as a hammer.

Conventional treatments help with medial epicondylitis – resting your arm, ice compresses and over the counter painkillers.

Dislocation of the elbow

If you have pain from dislocating or fracturing your elbow you’ll probably know how you’ve done it, as it’s often caused by a fall or impact.

Symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising and inability to move the elbow.

Usually the fractured elbow will be put in a cast or splint to keep it in place while it heals, and you’ll be given medication for pain and swelling.

Ligament sprains in the elbow

Ligament problems can happen if your arm is bent or twisted unnaturally, or when your arm is overstretched or overloaded. It can be very painful and swollen, and you might not be able to use your elbow at all.

Putting ice on the joint and taking pain relief medication will help with any discomfort.

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