Decoding Serious Elbow Pain: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

Decoding Serious Elbow Pain: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments

Unlike other joints, elbow injuries aren't often due to arthritis or wear and tear. Instead, they commonly result from repetitive arm, hand, or wrist motion. 

So, how can you tell if your elbow pain is severe? First, you must know the signs and types of elbow injuries to understand how to manage the pain at home and when to seek professional help. We'll walk you through this information, including at-home treatment methods like a brace or arm massage tool.

Symptoms of Serious Elbow Pain

As you move through your day-to-day activities, think more about the work your elbow does. But when pain comes knocking, it's time to take notice and figure out what your body is trying to tell you.

  • Cracking or crunching sounds when you move your arm (called crepitus)
  • Decreased mobility or strength
  • Stiffness
  • Pain while making a fist
  • Visible deformity
  • Numbness or tingling in your arm. 

If you experience these symptoms, visit a healthcare professional for a proper assessment.

Causes of Elbow Pain

As you look closer at your elbow pain, understanding the possible causes can be pretty illuminating. Elbow pain isn't only a result of traumatic injuries or sudden accidents — it's often rooted in repetitive stress injuries.

Tennis Elbow

One typical offender is tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis. This condition is inflammation coupled with possible microtears in the tendons that link your forearm muscles to the outside of your elbow. 

Daily activities, such as playing tennis, cooking, or carpentry, can strain or weaken these extensor tendons, leading to pain at the top side of your forearm near your elbow. You may also experience forearm weakness and pain when you're gripping objects. 

Remember, a compressed nerve can sometimes mimic the symptoms of a tennis elbow. So, upfront diagnosis is crucial in determining the proper treatment if you suspect you have tennis elbow.

Golfer's Elbow

Another common cause is golfer's elbow or medial epicondylitis. Like tennis elbow, a golfer's elbow is a repetitive stress injury. However, this condition results in inner elbow pain instead of outer elbow pain. 

In this case, your wrist and finger-controlling muscles and tendons bear the brunt of the damage. Popular belief might have you think that only golf players fall prey to a golfer's elbow, but that's far from the truth. From computer users and plumbers to painters, even those who play tennis or baseball can be susceptible.

Other Common Elbow Injuries

  • Ulnar collateral ligament injury: Also referred to as a Tommy John injury, a UCL injury occurs when the ligament on your inner elbow gets overstressed, leading to tears.
  • Biceps & triceps tendinitis: This is an inflammation in one of the tendons in your upper arm. When these connective tissues are inflamed, your elbow joint becomes painful.
  • Osteoarthritis: Once this protective cartilage in your joints breaks down, you're left with bone rubbing against bone, which can be uncomfortable and lead to restricted mobility.
  • Cubital tunnel syndrome: This condition is inflammation of the ulnar nerve, which causes numbness or tingling in the ring and little fingers, arm pain, or hand weakness.
  • Stress fractures: Microscopic cracks in the elbow bone can cause consistent pain. They often occur from overuse or repetitive activity, especially in athletes.
  • Dislocated elbow: A vital force or sudden impact can cause the bones in your elbow to move out of their proper alignment, potentially requiring immediate medical treatment.

When to Seek Medical Help

If you're experiencing persistent, burning elbow pain, don't ignore it. Persistent pain, swelling, instability, or inability to use your arm usually indicate that you should seek medical attention. Seek help immediately if you experience a snapping sound, severe pain, or see a visible bone since this could indicate potential fractures or dislocations.

Medical Tests for Elbow Pain

Suppose you're seeking a diagnosis for your elbow pain. In that case, the doctor can ask you questions about your medical history. They'll also perform a physical examination and potentially order imaging tests like X-rays, MRI, or CT scans.

Treating Serious Elbow Pain

The good news is that various treatment options help alleviate your symptoms and support your healing process. Your treatment path will depend on several factors, including the root cause of your elbow injury, the severity of your condition, overall health, and lifestyle. 

Remember, before starting any new treatment, it's recommended that you talk with a healthcare professional. Here are some of the most common treatments.

Massage

A specialized massage could speed your recovery by increasing your blood flow and reducing inflammation. This method, paired with other treatments, such as self-massage with a foam roller, could be what your elbow needs to regain its pain-free normality.

Foam Rolling

Applying pressure to your arm with a foam rolling tool might be an excellent way to reduce muscle tension and improve the overall range of motion around your elbow. However, always use appropriate foam rolling techniques for the most benefit and avoid rolling directly on your joints. 

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy involves various exercises and movements to increase strength, restore mobility, and alleviate pain. Remember, physical therapy routines are highly individualized, so what works for someone else may not work for you. Find a reputable physical therapist who will customize your treatment plan.

Casts or Splints

For some elbow injuries, immobilizing the affected joint can expedite its healing. A cast or splint could keep your joint in a specific position, preventing further injury and encouraging recovery.

Braces or Splints

Wearing braces or supports could prevent strain and stabilize your joints. These devices are designed to reduce stress on the injured area while you heal. They help manage conditions like tennis elbow and golfer's elbow.

Medicines

You can directly apply over-the-counter topical treatments such as menthol, lidocaine, and diclofenac sodium to the sore area. Oral medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium help reduce pain and inflammation. Always follow the recommended dosages and consult a healthcare professional with any concerns.

Steroid Injections

Healthcare professionals may use steroid injections to provide you with short-term relief for severe elbow pain. These injections can reduce inflammation in and around your joints, but they are typically not a long-term solution.

Platelet-Rich Plasma Injections

Recent advances in medical science have led to platelet-rich plasma injections, which use your body's healing processes to help repair injured tissues. These treatments are typically reserved for chronic elbow conditions that have not responded to other treatments.

Surgery

In some severe cases, surgery may be the best option for correcting persistent elbow issues and relieving pain. Operations involve:

  • Removing the bursa.
  • Using keyhole surgery to repair the damage.
  • Performing an elbow ligament reconstruction surgery.

Preventing Elbow Pain

For most people, elbow pain doesn't require an immediate trip to the hospital. Often, you can use standard remedies at home to make yourself more comfortable.

RICE Technique

RICE is a well-known technique for managing minor injuries — an acronym for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If you've noticed particular activities cause you pain, consider avoiding them for some time. Place a cold compress on the tender area for about 20 minutes thrice daily and wrap your elbow to ease swelling. Finally, elevate your elbow above your heart level to further reduce inflammation.

Many people overlook applying heat, but it could work wonders for you. By encouraging blood flow around your body, heat could ease some of your stiffness. Finally, protect your elbow from further harm, whether your injury has been minor or major. This preventative measure will give your elbow the crucial time it needs to heal properly.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main treatment options for managing elbow injuries?

Treatment options for managing elbow injuries range from simple self-care measures such as rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE technique) to seeking professional medical advice for a personalized treatment plan. Other preventive measures include protecting the elbow from further harm and recognizing the signs that require immediate medical attention.

What activities increase the risk of elbow injuries?

Repetitive gripping and twisting tasks significantly increase the risk of elbow injuries. Avoiding these activities and practicing preventive self-care measures, like applying heat to the elbow, can help prevent and alleviate elbow pain.

What are the signs of severe elbow injury?

Severe elbow injuries are usually characterized by intense pain, swelling, and a grating or crackling sensation when moving the joint. If these signs occur, seek medical attention immediately.

Can elbow pain ever heal by itself?

Yes, most elbow pain caused by minor injuries or soft tissue inflammation tends to clear up within a few days. Over-the-counter painkillers and rest can further help with the healing process.

When is it crucial to seek medical attention for an elbow injury?

If you experience a sudden injury to your elbow accompanied by a cracking sound, severe pain, swelling, bruising around the joint, or trouble moving your elbow or using your arm as usual, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

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