Why Your Elbow Hurts: Causes, Symptoms & When to See a Doctor

Why Your Elbow Hurts: Causes, Symptoms & When to See a Doctor

Have you ever tried to catch a closing door and felt a sudden jolt of pain in your elbow? Or perhaps you've attempted to lift your child and experienced a debilitating ache? Elbow pain can strike anytime, leaving you wondering what’s causing discomfort.

Your elbow is a complex structure composed of bones, ligaments, tendons, nerves, blood vessels, and cartilage. It's no surprise that it can be prone to pain. Overuse or misuse can lead to various issues. But if you understand elbow pain’s potential causes, you’ll be better equipped to treat or prevent it.

Let’s look at some common explanations for elbow discomfort and practical rehabilitation options, including rest, stretches, and using an arm massager. We’ll also clarify when to ditch the home remedies and visit your doctor’s office.

Causes of Elbow Pain

It’s often challenging to pinpoint precisely why your elbow hurts when you extend or bend it. Elbow pain can stem from various sources due to the complexity of the joint. These are some of the mechanical issues and medical conditions that cause discomfort in and around the elbow.

Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) occurs when you strain your arm’s tendons through repetitive wrist, forearm, and elbow movements, causing inflammation and microtrauma. This overuse can stem from any activity involving repetitive wrist flexing or extending, not just tennis! Initial tennis elbow symptoms include pain outside the elbow when lifting or bending your arm, gripping small items, or twisting your forearm. It may even be difficult to extend your arm fully.

Golfer’s Elbow

Depending on your lifestyle or profession, you could be at risk for golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis). Much like tennis elbow, this condition results from overuse of your arm. More precisely, repetitive wrist flexing, hand gripping, or similar strenuous activities inflame and strain the tendons on the inside of your elbow (unlike the exterior pain typical with tennis elbow). You will likely feel pain when making a fist, twisting your wrist, or clutching something like a golf club.

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Where tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow are forms of tendinitis, cubital tunnel syndrome is a type of ulnar nerve entrapment. This condition results from excessive pressure on the ulnar nerve, often due to leaning on the elbow for extended intervals. You may experience limited elbow movement, numbness, tingling, or stiffness in your fingers or elbow region.

Injury or Trauma

A sprain might damage your arm's connective tissues through a particular movement. At the same time, an elbow fracture (caused by a fall, a direct blow, or some other type of trauma) is another potential cause of pain. A repetitive strain injury (RSI) is common among office workers, frequent computer users, and individuals whose work involves repetitive manual tasks.

Additionally, swelling, tenderness, and limited movement around the elbow joint could hint at bursitis or osteoarthritis, which also causes elbow pain.

Self-Care & Home Remedies

Elbow pain can be debilitating, but there are self-care measures and home remedies you can employ while you’re on your recovery journey. Knowing about these can also help in preventing recurring pain.

  • Rest and ice: First and foremost, rest your elbow. This helps the healing process by giving your tendons and muscles a hiatus from whatever led to the discomfort in the first place. Consider using an ice pack for a few minutes every three or four hours to reduce inflammation and temporarily relieve your soreness.
  • Foam rolling: These exercises can resolve tightness and improve blood flow. Approach things cautiously to avoid foam rolling mistakes like applying too much pressure or rolling directly on the hurt areas — this could exacerbate your symptoms. Consult with a physiotherapist to maximize the benefits and minimize the risk to your elbow.
  • Stretching exercises: Maintaining and working on mobility and flexibility in your elbow can alleviate pain, boost your joint's function, and speed up recovery—practice stretching exercises at least once a day, including eccentric and isometric exercises. 

When to See a Doctor

Occasionally, elbow pain can signal a more serious issue. Knowing the signs to watch for can help determine when it may be time to seek professional medical advice.

  • If your elbow pain persists for over two weeks, even after self-care measures like rest, over-the-counter painkillers, and specific foam rolling techniques for tennis elbow
  • If fever, heat, redness, or swelling accompany your elbow pain. These may be signs of an underlying infection that requires immediate medical attention.
  • Suppose you've experienced obvious trauma, such as a direct impact or fall onto an outstretched hand. Pain, bruising, and swelling could be signs of a fracture.
  • If you experience a limited range of motion, such as trouble gripping small objects, turning a door handle, or lifting or bending your arm.
  • Suppose your elbow pain is accompanied by numbness, tingling, or a persistent weakness. These symptoms could indicate nerve damage.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some reasons for elbow pain without an injury?

Elbow pain without an injury could result from a disease like rheumatoid arthritis, gout, or lupus. A pinched nerve might result in elbow pain, numbness, and tingling sensations. Referred pain, resulting from problems elsewhere, like a heart attack, can also affect the elbow.

How do you differentiate between arthritis and tendinitis in the elbow?

Tendinitis generally results in acute or sudden pain, whereas arthritis is usually chronic. Doctors diagnose these conditions using a detailed patient history, a physical examination, imaging tests, or blood work.

Why does my elbow hurt when lifting items?

Repeated stress or trauma to the elbow tendons, like during sports or using tools, can lead to conditions such as tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow. Symptoms include pain or weakness during grasping and persistent aches in the elbow area.

What treatments alleviate elbow pain?

Physiotherapy-prescribed exercises can strengthen your tendons and soft tissue. Applying ice packs, massaging your forearms, seeing an acupuncturist, and taping or bracing your elbow are other options for pain relief. While anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving medications can help you manage the pain, they won’t contribute to your long-term recovery.

Image by Ground Picture from Shutterstock

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