What Causes Elbow Pain? Diagnosis and Treatment Options

By Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 10, 2022

An ache in your elbow can be frustrating, especially if it lingers for days or weeks.

Activities that require a repetitive motion of the arm could be the culprit of your elbow pain.

The good news is it should heal on its own if you strained the joint performing an activity.

If you haven’t picked up a racquet lately and have persistent elbow pain, it may be time to see a doctor.

In this article, I’ll go over the most common causes of elbow pain, treatments, and when to give your healthcare provider a call.

Causes

Three bones make up your elbow joint: the humerus, ulna, and radius.

Tendons, cartilage, ligaments, and nerves also help the elbow joint function properly.

You may experience discomfort in your elbow if any of these essential parts become injured or inflamed.

There are several causes of elbow pain, including:

  • Arthritis: Normal wear and tear of the joint usually causes arthritis. As you age, you may notice a loss in the range of motion and pain in your elbow. These could be signs of arthritis.
  • Osteoarthritis: Though it occurs most frequently in the hands, hips, and knees, pain can develop in the elbow, as well. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. When you have it, you may experience pain, stiffness, and swelling in your elbow.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: An overactive immune system causes rheumatoid arthritis. Your body stimulates antibody production that inflames the lining of healthy joints, such as your elbow.
  • Bursitis: A fluid-filled sac called a bursa is located at the tip of your elbow. Sometimes it can become inflamed, which leads to bursitis. The lubricating fluid inside the sac typically allows your elbow to move smoothly. 
  • Dislocated elbow or sprain: Three bones meet in your elbow joint. When trauma causes one of these bones to move out of place, it can cause pain, swelling, and lack of movement. Falls, vehicle collisions, and accidents may cause an elbow dislocation. A young child may experience a common elbow dislocation known as nursemaid’s elbow.
  • Fracture: An elbow fracture can occur from a traumatic blow to the elbow. Common causes include a fall, vehicle collision, or sports injury. Imaging may need to be done by a healthcare professional to get an accurate fracture diagnosis.
  • Gout: If your body has high uric acid and inflammation levels, a common form of arthritis may develop. It’s known as gout, which frequently develops in the big toe but can also develop in the elbow. Gout causes pain, swelling, and tenderness in the elbow joint.
  • Tendonitis: Tendons in your elbow can become inflamed with repeated motion, causing tendonitis. This chronic injury results in pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow. When using your hands, you may also experience discomfort since flexing your fingers uses tendons in your forearm and elbow.
  • Tennis elbow: Repetitive motion of the wrist and arm can cause tennis elbow. This injury is not limited to tennis players. It can develop doing any activity that overuses the tendons in your elbow.
  • Osteochondritis dissecans: Injury or genetic factors can cause bone underneath the cartilage in your elbow to die due to a lack of blood flow. The condition most commonly develops in children and causes pain, stiffness, and swelling in the elbow.
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Diagnosis

If your elbow pain persists or worsens, it may be time to see a doctor.

You can expect to go over your relevant health history and symptoms at your appointment. 

Pinpointing why your elbow hurts is key to your healthcare provider recommending the right treatment.

They may need to do several tests to determine the cause of your elbow pain, including:

Physical Exam

Your provider may move your elbow around to examine your range of motion.

They may also feel the outside of your elbow to locate any abnormalities and assess joint tenderness.

Imaging

Advanced imaging allows your doctor to examine the bones in your elbow.

Depending on your symptoms, they may order a CT, MRI, or x-ray.

These imaging procedures are painless.

Electromyography (EMG)

If you’re experiencing tingling or numbness in your elbow, it could be due to muscle or nerve damage.

An EMG helps your doctor determine how well the motor neurons communicate with your muscles.

An EMG is a two-step procedure. First, a physician places small discs on your skin to record nerve function.

Next, they put a tiny needle into the muscles around your elbow to test muscle function. Your elbow muscles may be tender for a few days following the EMG.

Fluid Biopsy

Your doctor may suspect bursitis caused by an infection.

They may recommend removing a small amount of fluid using a needle, first administering a local anesthetic to numb the elbow area before the biopsy.

The fluid sample is sent to a laboratory to determine if an infection is present.

Treatment

Your symptoms, physical exam, test results, and imaging will guide your provider to recommend the appropriate treatment for your elbow pain.

Approximately 80-95% of patients recover from elbow pain without surgical treatment.

Common treatment options may include:

  • Ice and rest
  • Physical therapy
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Prescription pain relievers
  • At-home exercises
  • Steroid injections
  • Braces
  • Acupuncture 

Prevention

Elbow pain is usually a result of overuse or injury to the elbow joint.

You can prevent the onset of elbow pain by:

  • Warming up and stretching properly before activity
  • Strength training
  • Taking breaks when participating in activities that require repetitive elbow movement (like tennis)
  • Wear padding during activities to protect your elbows 
  • If you’re unsteady on your feet, avoid falls by using a cane or walker
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When to See a Medical Provider

Elbow pain usually goes away on its own with rest and ice.

But if you’re having persistent or worsening elbow pain for more than a week, you should visit your doctor.

Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Aching pain when moving your arm
  • Difficulty sleeping because of elbow pain
  • Limited range of motion
  • Numbness or tingling in your arm
  • Pain in the elbow when you’re resting
  • Pain in your arm that worsens over time
  • Pain when using your arm
  • Weakness in your arm

How K Health Can Help

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Frequently Asked Questions

What causes elbow pain without injury?
Arthritis or gout may be the cause of elbow pain without injury. Repetitive use of your elbow may also lead to elbow pain from tendonitis or tennis elbow.
How do you get rid of elbow pain?
Rest, ice, and OTC pain relievers can alleviate elbow pain. However, if your elbow pain is persistent or becomes worse, speak with your doctor.
What does tendonitis in the elbow feel like?
Tendonitis may cause an ache in your elbow, forearm, wrist, and hands. It may also be uncomfortable to grip objects, turn doorknobs, and open jars.
When should you see a doctor for elbow pain?
If your elbow pain doesn’t go away with several days of ice and rest, call your doctor. Intense swelling, bruising, and numbness are also signs you should see a healthcare provider.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN

Craig Sorkin, DNP, APN is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 15 years experience. He received his Undergraduate and Graduate degrees from William Paterson University and his doctoral degree from Drexel University. He has spent his career working in the Emergency Room and Primary Care. The last 6 years of his career have been dedicated to the field of digital medicine. He has created departments geared towards this specialized practice as well as written blogs and a book about the topic.