We all know how painful it is when we knock our “funny” bone against something. In fact, it’s not really funny at all! But at least we know the pain will subside after a few minutes. Persistent or recurring elbow pain, however, is not quite as easy to get rid of and may need the intervention of a medical professional.
Your elbow is made up of many different parts, meaning there are many different possible causes of elbow pain! Your elbow is actually the joint where three separate bones – your upper arm (humerus), and the two bones making up your forearm, the radius and ulna – all come together. Each of these three bones has cartilage on the end, which not only acts as a shock absorber but also helps the bones slide against each other when you move your arm. Your elbow also has ligaments, which hold the three bones in place, as well as tendons which connect your muscles to the bones, allowing you to move your arm freely. If any of these components is injured in any way, elbow pain is the result.
Common Causes Of Elbow Pain
Unlike knees, hips and ankles, your elbows are not weight-bearing joints. Because they’re used continually throughout the day, however, they are still subject to stress injuries and wear and tear. Some of the most common of these include:
Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis And Medial Epicondylitis)
Both these injuries are types of tendonitis. This is when overuse causes swelling around the tendons in your elbow, causing pain. Despite the names, these kinds of injuries aren’t only found in golfers and tennis players. Anyone who regularly plays a sport with a similar kind of repetitive arm motion is vulnerable to this type of elbow pain.
Your bursae are small, fluid-containing sacs found in your joints. Olecranon bursitis affects the bursae protecting the pointy bone of the elbow. Commonly called student’s elbow, miner’s elbow, and draftsman’s elbow, it’s caused by leaning on your elbow for a prolonged period of time, infection or a blow to the elbow.
Trapped Nerve (Cubital Tunnel Syndrome and Radial Tunnel Syndrome)
These are similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, except they happen in your elbow instead of your wrist. With cubital tunnel syndrome, the ulnar nerve (one of the main nerves in your arm) becomes squeezed, or trapped, as it runs along the inside of your elbow, passing through the cubital tunnel. This causes a numbness or burning in your fingers, arm and hand. Radial tunnel syndrome is very similar, except the radial nerve runs along the outside of your elbow, through the radial tunnel. With this syndrome, the burning or numbness is felt on your elbow and outside forearm.
Other injuries, such as a dislocation, fracture or sprain can also cause significant elbow pain. More rarely, an illness or disease is to blame. Rheumatoid arthritis, for example, occurs when your immune system attacks healthy tissue, causing swelling in your joints. Osteoarthritis is a wear and tear condition, caused by your elbow cartilage breaking down over time.
Osteochondritis dissecans, also called Panner’s disease, is usually seen in children and teenagers. It causes a piece of bone near the elbow to die. The dead bone then breaks off, taking some cartilage with it. Pain is most often experienced during physical activity.
Treatment For Elbow Pain
Treatment for the different conditions causing elbow pain varies according to the type of injury or illness causing the pain. An orthopaedic specialist will help you diagnose and manage your injury. Minor strains and sprains, for example, are usually treated with a combination of ice packs, compression and rest. Sometimes, this is supplemented with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication.
Elbow pain caused by a dislocation or fracture usually needs some kind of external support, such as a brace or cast, and a sling. If the trauma is severe, surgical repair might be needed. If the pain is caused by some kind of infection, then antibiotics will be prescribed. Occasionally, if fluid has built up as a result of the infection, this is drained before further treatment occurs.
If You Can’t Bend It, We’ll Mend It!
If your elbow pain is driving you round the, well, bend, make an appointment with Dr Baba, Health In Motion’s well-known and respected orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine physician. He consults and operates from three convenient locations and will give you a thorough assessment and diagnosis.