Elbow pain most commonly arises due to excessive repetitive activities. In some cases, it is caused following an injury.
What can I do myself to get better – now and in the future
- Rest – Arm and elbow pain and generally best managed, at least initially, with relative rest. It may help to wear a splint during the day (but you should take this off at night or when resting). When exercising, ensure you warm up gently and properly to help avoid injury.
- Cold – Apply ice packs or a bag of frozen peas (wrap in a cloth to prevent ice burns) and apply to the painful area to help reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
- Elevation – If swelling. Try to keep the arm elevated above the level of the heart if possible, to help reduce any swelling
- Painkillers – taking regular doses of painkillers like ibuprofen, paracetamol, or a combination, are often helpful. Alternatively, you may prefer to use ‘rub on’ (topical) versions instead. Speak to your pharmacist for further information.
- Appliances – Tennis and golfers elbow will often benefit from an appropriate splint which may be purchased from your pharmacist or online.
When should I see my doctor?
- If you have severe pain, tingling, or numbness in the arm or fingers, or if your limb feels cold, after an injury, or if you think you may have broken your arm (for example it is severely swollen or appears to be deformed).
- If the joint becomes hot, red, swollen and tender, and/or you feel feverish so you should see your doctor straight away.
Common Causes of Elbow Pain
- Tennis Elbow – pain on the outside of the elbow
- Golfers Elbow – pain on the inside of the elbow
- Both the above conditions usually occurs after overuse activity of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint. It is most common between the ages of 40-60. Almost 80% of people recover with self-management advice.
- Elbow Osteoarthritis – Pain and grinding in the elbow joint itself on movement with restriction of range of movement may represent arthritis ‘wear ‘ within the joint . Rare under 40 years of age.
- Ulnar Neuritis – also known as Cubital Tunnel syndrome. Repetitive movement or prolonged bending at the elbow may irritate the ulnar nerve (‘funny bone’) as it winds around the inside of the elbow joint. Because of the route followed by the nerve it results in tingling and numbness in the fourth and fifth fingers of the affected hand.
Other causes of elbow pain:
- Simple strain or sprain:
- Injury to muscle/ligament/tendon, usually caused by overuse or a sudden movement with reduced function
- This will usually settle with self-management advice above. If it is not settling after 7-10 days you should seek advice for from a clinician
- The fluid filled “cushion” (bursa) over the tip of the elbow (olecranon) becomes inflamed, usually through direct injury or repetitive movement. This results in a ‘soft bag of fluid’ protruding from the point of the elbow.
- In addition to relevant ‘Self- Management’ advice above. A tubigrip-type compression bandage may provide relief and speed recovery. Symptoms usually settle over a few weeks.
- If it persists despite self-management your doctor may drain the fluid from the bursa. While there is a high recurrence rate it is a simple procedure with little risk that can be worth trying if persistent symptoms.
- If it becomes red , hot or inflamed see your doctor soon as it may become infected and need a course of antibiotics. This is not common.
- Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)
- Pain may arise around the elbow and forearm when performing particular tasks repetitively over a long period of time, such as using a computer at work, or repetitive manual labour.
- RSI is not a diagnosis but a reflection of the cause. If you feel work may be causing your condition talk to your employer and/or occupational health department about adapting your work environment, if appropriate. If symptoms do not settle, seek clinical guidance to obtain specific diagnosis and advice.