Common and Complex Reasons for Elbow Pain

Most people never give elbow pain a second thought until they experience it. Even when the pain is minor, it can make daily life difficult. After all, the elbow plays a major role and is used for multiple purposes so when a person feels pain, mobility is usually limited to some degree. In most cases, elbow pain is related to something simple that would easy to remedy but other times it would be an indicator of something more serious occurring.


Understanding Elbow Function


In simple terms, the elbow, also referred to as the “ball and socket joint”, is what connects the shoulder and arm. In all, three long bones come together in the mid-section of the arm, which include the following:


  • Humerus – Arm’s upper bone
  • Ulna – Forearm’s inner bone      connecting to the Humerus bone
  • Radius – Forearm’s outer bone      forming a hinge joint


The elbow itself works like a hinge so a person’s arm can move forward and backward but also rotate inward and outward. For the elbow to function, all components must healthy to include bones, tendons, muscles, and nerves. While most types of pain are relatively easy to treat, some of the more complex causes can be challenging.


We also want to point out that while most causes of elbow pain can be treated relatively easy, if an individual were to experience pain lasting more than a few days, worsening pain, or radiating pain, or if additional symptoms developed such as fever or nausea, it would be imperative to seek medical attention.


Common Reasons for Pain


The following are some of the common things that produce pain in the elbow region:




Of all reasons a person feels pain in the elbow, Tendonitis is the most common. With this, tendons that attach the forearm’s muscles and Lateral Epicondyle are injured, usually from repetitive motion. This is why people who play tennis or use hand tools often are at greatest risk. Treatment of Tendonitis typically consists of cold compresses, rest, anti-inflammatory drugs, pain medication, and sometimes an arm brace.


Medial Epicondylitis


This condition is also caused from repetitive motion involving the tendons that attach to the Medial Epicondyle or the bony structure on the inside of the elbow. Because this is something that golfers often develop, it is also referred to as “Golfer’s Elbow” although any movement causing strain to the forearm’s tendons could be the problem.


As far as treatment, over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammatory medication along with rest, cold compresses, and an arm brace work well. Keep in mind that in more serious cases, one or more cortisone injections might be required to reduce inflammation and promote healing.


Olecranon Bursitis


When the fluid-filled sac at the tip of the elbow known as the Bursa becomes inflamed, pain often develops. Even though the inner elbow joint motion is not compromised, pain is typically intense. Injury is the most common cause of Olecranon Bursitis but infection, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Gout can also be culprits. As with other elbow problems, an individual would need to provide the arm rest, use cold compresses, and take medication for inflammation and pain.




Pain could also develop as the result of a sprained ligament, usually from the elbow joint being jammed or hyperextended. The level of pain associated with a sprain varies depending on the number of tendons involved and whether the involved tendon(s) was just stretched or if it actually tore. Treatment consists of

rest, immobilization, cold compresses, and again, either over-the-counter or prescription medication to reduce swelling and relieve pain.




While the elbow is one of the more difficult bones in the body to break, the joint and surrounding bones of the arm can become fractured. After a break has been confirmed by a doctor, the best treatment would be discussed. Typically, the arm would be set in a cast for immobility coupled with anti-inflammatory and pain medication being prescribed. For serious fractures, a metal pin might need to be surgically inserted.


Complex Reasons for Pain


The examples provided below represent some of the more serious reasons that pain in the elbow region might develop:




Although this disease is common and impacts the lives of millions of people in the United States alone, if not properly treated it can be totally debilitating. Arthritis causes the elbow joint to become tender to the touch, it reduces range of motion, and it promotes swelling and pain. Exact treatment would be based on which of the seven types of arthritis a person has to include Rheumatoid Arthritis, Reactive Arthritis, Psoriatic Arthritis, Gouty Arthritis, Osteoarthritis, or Ankylosing Spondylitis.




This condition actually starts as a skin infection that forms abrasions but if the abrasions were to open, bacteria on the skin’s surface could penetrate deep to the Olecranon Bursa. When this happens, an individual would develop a fever, have significant swelling, and experience pain. This infection can become quite serious so proper treatment is critical but along with antibiotics, treatment usually involves heat application and medication for pain and swelling.


Additional Risks


Following are some additional conditions that could cause elbow pain. While some of these are considered rare, they do occur:

  • Osteochondritis Dissecans – Cartilage of the joint flakes away from the bone
  • Septic Arthritis – Also considered rare, this is an infection of the elbow joint most commonly seen in people with diabetes or a compromised immune system
  • Tumor – Another rare problem is the development of one or more tumors, most often in the form of bone cancer
  • Ulnar Nerve Entrapment – The Ulnar nerve becomes entrapped, causing pain, as well as tingling and numbness of both ring and pinky fingers

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