Looks at conditions, such as gout, pinched nerve, bursitis, tennis elbow, and golfer's elbow, that may cause elbow problems. Offers interactive tool to help you decide when to see the doctor. Covers home treatment and prevention tips.
Elbow Problems, Noninjury
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
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
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
Soreness or pain in the inner (medial) part of the elbow
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
Treatment for an elbow problem may include first aid
measures; application of a brace, splint, or cast;
physical therapy; or medicine.
Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in or
around the area.
Red streaks leading from the area.
Pus draining from the area.
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
Mild pain (1 to 4): You notice the pain,
but it is not bad enough to disrupt your sleep or activities.
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.
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
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.
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
Medicines you take. Certain
medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them
Recent health events, such as surgery
or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them
Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug
use, sexual history, and travel.
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.
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,
Long-term alcohol and drug
Steroid medicines, which may be used to treat a variety
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for
Other medicines used to treat autoimmune
Medicines taken after organ transplant.
having a spleen.
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
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.
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
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.
Most minor elbow problems go away
on their own. Home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve your
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.
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
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:
Aspirin (also a nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory drug), such as Bayer or Bufferin
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.
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.
Stretch before and after physical exercise, sports, or
recreational activities to warm up your muscles.
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
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.
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.
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
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.