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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

Do you have an elbow problem?
This includes symptoms like pain, numbness, and trouble moving the elbow normally.
Yes
Elbow problem
No
Elbow problem
How old are you?
Less than 5 years
Less than 5 years
5 years or older
5 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Have you injured the elbow in the past month?
Yes
Elbow injury in the past month
No
Elbow injury in the past month
Have you had elbow surgery in the past month?
If a cast, splint, or brace is causing the problem, follow the instructions you got about how to loosen it.
Yes
Elbow surgery in the past month
No
Elbow surgery in the past month
Is the arm blue, very pale, or cold and different from the other arm?
If the arm is in a cast, splint, or brace, follow the instructions you got about how to loosen it.
Yes
Arm blue, very pale, or cold and different from other arm
No
Arm blue, very pale, or cold and different from other arm
Is there any pain in the elbow?
Yes
Elbow pain
No
Elbow pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
5 to 10: Moderate to severe pain
Moderate to severe pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
Has the pain:
Gotten worse?
Pain is increasing
Stayed about the same (not better or worse)?
Pain is unchanged
Gotten better?
Pain is improving
Do you have any pain in your elbow?
Yes
Elbow pain
No
Elbow pain
How bad is the pain on a scale of 0 to 10, if 0 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?
8 to 10: Severe pain
Severe pain
5 to 7: Moderate pain
Moderate pain
1 to 4: Mild pain
Mild pain
How long has the pain lasted?
Less than 2 full days (48 hours)
Pain less than 2 days
2 days to 2 weeks
Pain 2 days to 2 weeks
More than 2 weeks
Pain more than 2 weeks
Has the pain:
Gotten worse?
Pain is getting worse
Stayed about the same (not better or worse)?
Pain is unchanged
Gotten better?
Pain is getting better
Do you think the problem may be causing a fever?
Some bone and joint problems can cause a fever.
Yes
Possible fever
No
Possible fever
Are there any symptoms of infection?
Yes
Symptoms of infection
No
Symptoms of infection
Are there red streaks leading away from the area or pus draining from it?
Yes
Red streaks or pus
No
Red streaks or pus
Do you have diabetes, a weakened immune system, peripheral arterial disease, or any surgical hardware in the area?
"Hardware" includes things like artificial joints, plates or screws, catheters, and medicine pumps.
Yes
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
No
Diabetes, immune problems, peripheral arterial disease, or surgical hardware in affected area
Do you have trouble moving the elbow or bending or straightening your arm at the elbow?
Pain and swelling can limit movement.
Yes
Difficulty moving elbow
No
Difficulty moving elbow
Is it very hard to move or somewhat hard to move?
"Very hard" means you can't move it at all in any direction without causing severe pain. "Somewhat hard" means you can move it at least a little, though you may have some pain when you do it.
Very hard
Very hard to move
Somewhat hard
Somewhat hard to move
How long have you had trouble moving your elbow?
Less than 2 days
Difficulty moving elbow for less than 2 days
2 days to 2 weeks
Difficulty moving elbow for 2 days to 2 weeks
More than 2 weeks
Difficulty moving elbow for more than 2 weeks
Has the loss of movement been:
Getting worse?
Difficulty moving is getting worse
Staying about the same (not better or worse)?
Difficulty moving is unchanged
Getting better?
Difficulty moving is improving
Is there any swelling?
Yes
Swelling
No
Swelling
Has swelling lasted for more than 2 days?
Yes
Swelling for more than 2 days
No
Swelling for more than 2 days
Have you had any new numbness or tingling in or below your elbow for more than an hour?
Yes
Numbness
No
Numbness
Has the elbow problem lasted for more than 2 weeks?
Yes
Symptoms for more than 2 weeks
No
Symptoms for more than 2 weeks

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Postoperative Problems

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.

  • Call your doctor now to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care in the next hour.
  • You do not need to call an ambulance unless:
    • You cannot travel safely either by driving yourself or by having someone else drive you.
    • You are in an area where heavy traffic or other problems may slow you down.
Elbow Injuries

Make an Appointment

Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.

  • Make an appointment to see your doctor in the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If appropriate, try home treatment while you are waiting for the appointment.
  • If symptoms get worse or you have any concerns, call your doctor. You may need care sooner.

Certain health conditions and medicines weaken the immune system's ability to fight off infection and illness. Some examples in adults are:

  • Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS.
  • Long-term alcohol and drug problems.
  • Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety of conditions.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer.
  • Other medicines used to treat autoimmune disease.
  • Medicines taken after organ transplant.
  • Not having a spleen.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Symptoms of infection may include:

  • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or around the area.
  • Red streaks leading from the area.
  • Pus draining from the area.
  • A fever.

Pain in children 3 years and older

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the child can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain. No one can tolerate severe pain for more than a few hours.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt the child's normal activities and sleep, but the child can tolerate it for hours or days.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The child notices and may complain of the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt his or her sleep or activities.

Pain in children under 3 years

It can be hard to tell how much pain a baby or toddler is in.

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that the baby cannot sleep, cannot get comfortable, and cries constantly no matter what you do. The baby may kick, make fists, or grimace.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The baby is very fussy, clings to you a lot, and may have trouble sleeping but responds when you try to comfort him or her.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): The baby is a little fussy and clings to you a little but responds when you try to comfort him or her.

Pain in adults and older children

  • Severe pain (8 to 10): The pain is so bad that you can't stand it for more than a few hours, can't sleep, and can't do anything else except focus on the pain.
  • Moderate pain (5 to 7): The pain is bad enough to disrupt your normal activities and your sleep, but you can tolerate it for hours or days. Moderate can also mean pain that comes and goes even if it's severe when it's there.
  • Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain, but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Seek Care Today

Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.

  • Call your doctor today to discuss the symptoms and arrange for care.
  • If you cannot reach your doctor or you don't have one, seek care today.
  • If it is evening, watch the symptoms and seek care in the morning.
  • If the symptoms get worse, seek care sooner.

When an area turns blue, very pale, or cold, it can mean that there has been a sudden change in the blood supply to the area. This can be serious.

There are other reasons for color and temperature changes. Bruises often look blue. A limb may turn blue or pale if you leave it in one position for too long, but its normal color returns after you move it. What you are looking for is a change in how the area looks (it turns blue or pale) and feels (it becomes cold to the touch), and this change does not go away.

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 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 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
Current as of February 18, 2013
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