What are some of the most common causes of elbow pain?
Elbow pain and injury is usually the result of simple overuse of that joint, which is why it's so common in certain professions and sports with repetitive motions.
How serious are elbow injuries? Is it something I can live with?
Most elbow injuries are not extremely serious and many will clear up on their own; however, they can cause a great deal of discomfort and pain during that healing process – we often don't realize how much we use our elbows until using them becomes painful and inconvenient.
Persistent elbow pain can be an indicator of other, more severe problems.
What are some specific types of severe and non-severe elbow problems?
A very common type of elbow injury is tendonitis, which is a direct result of overuse of the arms from things like tennis, golf, playing too much Wii, or even something like doing household chores that cause the elbow's tendons to swell up. There is also something called ulnar nerve entrapment – which is when the ulnar nerve, or "funny bone," is pinched and is causing a great deal of discomfort, numbness or tingling in the elbow, forearm and hand.
More serious elbow injuries are things like fractures (which are broken bones) and sprains (which are torn or stretched ligaments). People may also suffer from certain other diseases and conditions that can cause elbow pain. These would include things like arthritis and various types of bacterial infections of the elbow.
What are the symptoms of those elbow problems?
Tendonitis can cause some swelling in the elbow area and also give it a "warm" feeling. The elbow will also be tender to the touch in the area where the injured ligament is. Range of motion is generally not limited, though, and the pain is typically worse at the end of the day.
Fractures will obviously be quite painful, and range of motion will be virtually non-existent.
Sprains are also quite painful and can be caused by things like hyperextension, which is when the elbow bends too far in the wrong direction. Severity of the injury depends on a number of things such as which ligaments were affected, whether they were stretched or torn, etc. Range of motion is also quite limited in the case of sprains.
Arthritis of the elbow generally causes a great deal of swelling and inflammation, along with feelings of heat, tenderness and a decreased range of motion.
Bacterial infections are sometimes visible under the skin as a bump, especially if the bump feels hot and irritated and appears red. Not all infections are visible on the outside of the body, though, so if you suspect an infection because your elbow is swelling, red, painful and won't move properly, then you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
How can elbow pain be treated?
Mild cases of tendonitis (tennis or golf elbow, for example) will generally go away on their own with the help of things like rest and ice packs.
The more serious elbow problems may require more. Arthritis is often degenerative and chronic, so there is no single treatment that will cure it. There are certain medications and procedures that can help alleviate some of the pain, though.
Bacterial infections of the elbow can usually be treated with antibiotics, rest and heat on the area.
Elbow fractures and sprains often require immobilization of the joint through the use of braces and casts and things like that. If a fracture is severe enough, surgery may be required in order to regain proper function of the elbow.
Surgery to repair fractures is necessary when the fracture is "open" or "compound" – meaning pieces of the bone have broken through the skin, making the risk for infection much higher. In this case, the patient is immediately taken to surgery so the bone can be set and the wounds thoroughly cleaned. Surgery is also usually required when the fracture is what we call "displaced" – meaning that we have to set the bone back in place so that it will heal properly.
Surgery may also be necessary in treating severe cases of tendonitis and ulnar nerve entrapment, but it can also be treated with things like injections of cortisone. Another newer treatment approach for treating severe cases is called platelet rich plasma injection. This is when we make an injection of blood platelets into the infected area, which has been shown to promote much faster healing and tissue recovery.
How can I be sure my elbow injury isn't serious?
When in doubt, the best way to be sure is to see your doctor. I would discourage anyone unsure about the cause of their elbow pain from simply ignoring it. Many times, persistent little pains can turn into major problems. Early detection and treatment can be a key factor in getting your elbows healthy again.