Elbow Pain

Is this your symptom?

  • Pain in the elbow

Causes

There are many possible causes of elbow pain. Some common minor causes are:

  • Bursitis (inflamed swelling of bursa)
  • Cellulitis (skin infection)
  • Lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow, a type of tendinitis)
  • Medial epicondylitis (golf elbow, a type of tendinitis)
  • Muscle strain and joint sprain
  • Overuse

Sometimes elbow pain can be from arthritis. Arthritis means joint ("arthr") inflammation ("itis"). The most common forms of arthritis are:

  • Gout: This type of arthritis happens to some people because of a build-up of uric acid crystals in the joints. Pain from gout or gouty arthritis comes on quickly. A person will notice a rapid start of severe pain, redness, and swelling in one elbow joint.
  • Osteoarthritis: This is also called "wear and tear" arthritis. It is the most common type of arthritis. As people get older the cartilage in the joints wears down. This type of arthritis often affects both sides of the body equally. The joints hurt and feel stiff. Osteoarthritis is seen more often after age 50. Nearly everyone will get some degree of wear and tear arthritis as they get older.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: This is a rare type of arthritis. It usually affects both sides of the body. In addition to pain, there can be joint redness, swelling, stiffness, and warmth. Special blood tests are needed to diagnose this type of arthritis.

When Should You Seek Medical Help Right Away?

Here are some signs that the elbow pain might be serious. You should seek medical help right away if:

  • Signs of infection occur (such as spreading redness, red streak, warmth)
  • Rash or blisters in same area as pain
  • Joint swelling with fever

Pain Scale

  • None: No pain. Pain score is 0 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Mild: The pain does not keep you from work, school, or other normal activities. Pain score is 1-3 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Moderate: The pain keeps you from working or going to school. It wakes you up from sleep. Pain score is 4-7 on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Severe: The pain is very bad. It may be worse than any pain you have had before. It keeps you from doing any normal activities. Pain score is 8-10 on a scale of 0 to 10.

When to Call for Elbow Pain

Call 911 Now

  • Similar pain before from "heart attack"
  • Similar pain before from "angina" and not relieved by nitroglycerin
  • You think you have a life-threatening emergency

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • Severe elbow pain
  • Elbow pain happens with exercise (such as while walking, goes away on resting)
  • Fever and swollen joint
  • Fever and red area of skin
  • Large red area or red streak
  • Entire arm is swollen
  • Weakness (loss of strength) in arm or hand of new onset
  • Numbness (loss of feeling) in arm or hand of new onset
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • You think you need to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Cast on arm and now pain is worse
  • Red area of skin that is painful (or tender to touch)
  • Group of small blisters in same area as pain
  • Looks like a boil, infected sore, or other infected rash
  • You think you need to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • Elbow pain keeps you from working or going to school
  • Elbow pain lasts more than 7 days
  • Elbow pains off and on for weeks or months (are frequent, come and go)
  • Caused or worsened by bending the neck
  • Can't move the elbow normally (bend or straighten fully)
  • Fluid-filled sack just over point of elbow
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Mild elbow pain
  • Caused by strained muscle
  • Caused by overuse from recent vigorous activity (such as golf, tennis, throwing a ball)
  • Caused by bumping funny bone (brief tingling or burning in hand and fingers that goes away)

Care Advice

Mild Elbow Pain

  1. What You Should Know:
    • Elbow pain can be caused by many things. Muscle strain and overuse can cause elbow pain. Elbow pain can also be caused by arthritis, tendinitis, and bursitis.
    • The best way to treat elbow pain will depend on the exact cause.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Cold or Heat:
    • Some people find that a cold or heat pack helps with the pain.
    • Cold Pack: For pain or swelling, use a cold pack or ice wrapped in a wet cloth. Put it on the sore area for 20 minutes. Repeat 4 times on the first day and then as needed.
    • Heat Pack: If pain lasts over 2 days, apply heat to the sore area. Use a heat pack, heating pad, or warm wet washcloth. Do this for 10 minutes and then as needed. You can also take a hot bath or hot shower instead. Move the sore area under the warm water.
  3. What to Expect:
    • Minor muscle strain, joint sprain, and overuse should start to get better in a couple days. The pain should go away within one week.
    • Marked swelling of the point of the elbow can happen with bursitis. The area may also be tender to the touch. Symptoms get better over 1 to 2 weeks with treatment and not leaning on that elbow.
    • Pain from tendinitis (such as tennis or golf elbow) can last days to weeks. It gets better quicker if you avoid doing the sport or activity that caused it.
    • Pain and stiffness from osteoarthritis (wear and tear arthritis) can be chronic. That is, it can last weeks, months or years. Sometimes the pain can flare up and then get better after a couple days.
    • What to expect in other cases will depend on the cause of pain.
  4. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Severe pain
    • Pain keeps you from doing normal activities (such as school, work)
    • Pain lasts more than 7 days
    • Signs of infection occur (such as spreading redness, red streak, warmth)
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Muscle Strain or Overuse

  1. What You Should Know - Muscle Strain:
    • A muscle strain occurs from over-stretching or tearing a muscle. People often call this a "pulled muscle". This muscle injury can occur while playing a sport or lifting something. Sometimes it can also occur while doing normal activities.
    • People often describe a sharp pain or popping when the muscle strain occurs. The muscle pain worsens when moving the arm.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. What You Should Know - Overuse:
    • Elbow pains are common following vigorous activity. Such activities can include tennis, throwing of a baseball, and golf. Other types of repeated forceful motions can also cause this (such as washing the car or scrubbing the floor). This problem happens when your body is not used to this amount of activity.
    • The main symptoms are soreness and tenderness of the elbow. Pain increases with certain movements.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  3. Apply a Cold Pack:
    • Apply a cold pack or an ice bag (wrapped in a moist towel) to the area for 20 minutes. Repeat this in 1 hour and then every 4 hours while awake.
    • Do this for the first 48 hours after an injury.
    • This will help decrease pain and swelling.
  4. Apply Heat to the Area:
    • Beginning 48 hours after an injury, apply a warm washcloth or heating pad for 10 minutes three times a day.
    • This will help increase blood flow and improve healing.
  5. Rest vs. Movement:
    • Complete rest should only be used for the first day or two after an injury.
    • Staying active helps muscle healing more than resting does.
    • Continue normal activities as much as your pain permits.
    • Avoid heavy lifting and active sports for 1 to 2 weeks or until the pain and swelling are gone.
  6. What to Expect:
    • Minor muscle strain and overuse should start to get better in a couple days.
    • The pain should go away within one week.
  7. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Severe pain
    • Pain keeps you from doing normal activities (such as school, work)
    • Pain lasts more than 7 days
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Bruised Funny Bone

  1. What You Should Know - Bruised Funny Bone:
    • You can treat a "bruised funny bone" at home.
    • A direct blow to the inner side of the back elbow can cause tingling and burning pain in the elbow. Pain can shoot down into the hand, usually into the middle, ring, and little fingers (3rd, 4th, and 5th).
    • Your "funny bone" is actually a nerve (ulnar) which wraps around the back of the elbow.
  2. What to Expect:
    • Symptoms from "bruising your funny bone" usually last just a few minutes.
    • If the symptoms last longer than 30 minutes, you should call your doctor.
    • If this happens often, you should call your doctor.
  3. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You have more questions
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Over-The-Counter Pain Medicines

  1. Pain Medicine:
    • You can take one of the following drugs if you have pain: acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve).
    • They are over-the-counter (OTC) pain drugs. You can buy them at the drugstore.
    • Use the lowest amount of a drug that makes your pain feel better.
    • Acetaminophen is safer than ibuprofen or naproxen in people over 65 years old.
    • Read the instructions and warnings on the package insert for all medicines you take.
  2. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You have more questions
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the 'Call Your Doctor' symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.


Last Reviewed: 6/26/2017 1:08:19 AM
Last Updated: 5/7/2017 1:36:03 PM

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