Arthritis in your elbow can cause swelling, stiffness, and pain that tends to be more intense on the outside of the elbow joint and worsens as you rotate or extend your arm. Elbow arthritis also affects range of motion and may cause the joint to lock or give out during movement. As the condition worsens, you may also feel tingling in your elbow or numbness in your ring and pinky fingers.
Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common cause of elbow arthritis. The chronic inflammatory disease causes your immune system to attack the lining of your joints, causing pain, swelling, and inflammation. It often affects joints on both sides of the body. So it could be the culprit if both elbows, not just one, ache.
Osteoarthritis is more common in weight-bearing joints such as the knees and hips, but it can also affect the elbow. Osteoarthritis happens because of the loss of cartilage that cushions the joints, causing the bones to rub together. That can come from too much wear and tear on the elbow joint from repetitive movements, such as from sports or work. It can also happen because of previous injuries, including a dislocation or fracture, which can wear down the cartilage and cause osteoarthritis.
Gout is another possibility. It happens when uric acid builds up in the bloodstream, leading to deposits of sharp crystals in the tissues and joints. You’d feel intense pain and swelling in the elbow joint.
While arthritis is common -- almost 55 million American adults have been diagnosed with some form of the disease -- it might not be the cause of your elbow pain. Injuries and issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tendinitis, and ganglion cysts, which are lumps that form next to the joints and tendons, are also common causes of elbow pain.
When to Call a Doctor
Tell your doctor if you feel pain, stiffness, or swelling in your elbow, or if the joint feels tender or warm and the symptoms last more than 3 days. You should also call if you lose range of motion or have trouble moving the joint, can no longer do your favorite activities, or get symptoms more than once within a month.
The doctor will ask you about your medical history; do a physical exam to look for signs of swelling, redness, and tenderness around the elbow joint; and may request imaging tests such as X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRIs). Your primary care doctor may also refer you to a specialist such as a rheumatologist.
Don’t ignore symptoms. Your doctor can diagnose the cause of the pain and, if arthritis is the cause, recommend treatment that can ease the pain, reduce stiffness and swelling, prevent further joint damage, and help you feel better.