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Elbow Problems, Noninjury

Elbow Problems, Noninjury

Topic Overview

At one time or another, everyone has had an elbow problem that may have caused pain or swelling. Most of the time our body movements do not cause problems, but it's not surprising that symptoms develop from everyday wear and tear or overuse.

Elbow problems can be minor or serious and may include symptoms such as pain, swelling, numbness, tingling, weakness, or changes in temperature or color. Home treatment often can relieve minor aches and pains. To better understand elbow problems, you may want to review the structure and function of the elbow . See a picture of the elbow .

Conditions that may cause elbow symptoms

Overuse elbow problems

Most people may not remember having a specific injury when their symptoms get worse over time, but overuse problems are actual injuries. They occur when too much stress is placed on a joint or other tissue, often when you overdo an activity or repeat an activity over and over. Overuse injuries include:

  • Bursitis . Swelling behind the elbow may be olecranon bursitis (Popeye elbow).
  • Tendinosis, which is a series of microtears in the connective tissue in or around the tendon.
    • Soreness or pain felt on the outside (lateral) part of the elbow may be tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis). This is the most common type of tendinopathy that affects the elbow and most often is caused by overuse of the forearm muscles. This overuse may occur during sports, such as tennis, swimming, golf, and sports involving throwing; jobs, such as carpentry or plumbing; or daily activities, such as lifting objects or gardening.
    • Soreness or pain in the inner (medial) part of the elbow may be golfer's elbow . In children who participate in sports that involve throwing, the same elbow pain may be described as Little Leaguer's elbow.
  • Ulnar nerve compression, which is the pinching of the ulnar nerve in the elbow joint. This usually occurs with repeated motions.

Treatment for an elbow problem may include first aid measures; application of a brace, splint, or cast; physical therapy ; or medicine.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

Most minor elbow problems go away on their own. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your symptoms.

Home treatment for minor problems

Home treatment may help relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness.

  • If you have swelling, remove all rings , bracelets, watches, or any other jewelry that goes around your wrist or fingers of the affected arm. It will be more harder to remove the jewelry later if swelling increases.
  • Use rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) to treat pain and swelling.
  • Wear a sling if it makes you more comfortable and supports your elbow. If you feel you need to use a sling for longer than 48 hours, discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
  • An elbow support, such as an elbow sleeve, forearm wrap, or arm sling, may help rest your elbow joint, relieve stress on forearm muscles, and protect the joint area during an activity. A counterforce brace may be helpful for tennis elbow symptoms. Follow the manufacturer's directions for using the brace.
  • Gently massage or rub the area to relieve pain and encourage blood flow. Do not massage the elbow if it causes pain.
  • After 48 to 72 hours, if swelling is gone, apply heat and begin gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help restore and maintain flexibility. Some experts recommend alternating between hot and cold treatments.
  • Do not smoke. Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child’s doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Pain or swelling develops.
  • Signs of infection develop.
  • Numbness, tingling, or cool, pale, skin develops.
  • Symptoms do not improve with home treatment.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

The following tips may prevent elbow problems.

General prevention tips

  • Don't carry objects that are too heavy.
  • Stretch before and after physical exercise, sports, or recreational activities to warm up your muscles.
  • Do stretching and range-of-motion (ROM) exercises with your fingers and wrist to prevent stiffening of the tendons that affect your elbows. Gently bend, straighten, and rotate your wrist. If you have any pain, stop the exercises.
  • Use the correct techniques (movements) or positions during activities so that you do not strain your muscles.
  • Avoid overusing your arm doing repeated movements that can injure your bursa or tendons. In daily routines or hobbies, examine activities in which you make repeated arm movements.
  • Take lessons to learn the proper technique for sports. Have a trainer or person who is familiar with sports equipment check your equipment to see if it is well suited for your level of ability, body size, and body strength.
  • If you feel that activities at your workplace are causing pain or soreness from overuse, call your human resources department for information on alternative ways of doing your job or to discuss equipment modifications or other job assignments.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • How long have you had your symptoms?
  • What were you doing when your symptoms started?
  • Have you had this problem in the past? If so, do you know what caused the problem at that time? How was it treated?
  • What activities related to sports, work, or your lifestyle make your symptoms better or worse?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did home treatment help?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines have you taken? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised February 16, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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