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Elbow Arthritis

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on June 01, 2020

What Is Elbow Arthritis?

If elbow pain is making it harder to do things like carry groceries, play tennis, or swing a hammer, arthritis might be to blame.

Elbow Arthritis Symptoms

You may notice:

  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Pain
  • A clicking or snapping feeling
  • Symptoms that are worse on the outside of the joint
  • More pain when you rotate or extend your arm
  • Trouble moving your elbow
  • The joint locks up or gives out when you move it
  • Tingling in your elbow
  • Numbness in your ring and pinky fingers

Elbow Arthritis Causes

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common cause of elbow arthritis. The long-term disease makes your immune system attack the lining of your joints, causing pain, swelling, and inflammation. It often affects joints on both sides of your body. So it could be the culprit if both elbows ache.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is more common in weight-bearing joints such as your knees and hips, but it can also affect your elbows. Osteoarthritis happens when you lose the cartilage that cushions the joints, causing the bones to rub together. That can come from too much wear and tear on the joint after you make the same movements over and over, such as during sports or work. It can also happen because of injuries, including a dislocation or fracture, which can wear down the cartilage. This is called post-traumatic arthritis.

Gout

Gout is another cause of elbow pain. It happens when uric acid builds up in your blood, leading to sharp crystals in the tissues and joints. You have intense pain and swelling in the elbow joint.

Psoriatic arthritis

If you have psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis can cause pain and inflammation in your joints, including the elbow. Not everyone with psoriasis gets psoriatic arthritis.

Juvenile arthritis

This is a group of diseases that affect children 16 or younger. Doctors aren’t sure what causes them.

Lupus-related arthritis

With lupus, your immune system attacks your own tissues, including your joints. It most often affects your hands and feet, but it can also involve your elbows.

Other causes of elbow pain

Arthritis is common -- almost 55 million American adults have been diagnosed with some form of the disease -- but it might not be the cause of your elbow pain. Injuries and issues such as bursitis and tendinitis are also common causes.

Elbow Arthritis Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam to look for signs of swelling, redness, and tenderness around the elbow joint. They’ll check how well you can move the joint. They may order imaging tests such as X-rays or MRIs. Your primary care doctor may also refer you to a specialist such as a rheumatologist.

Elbow Arthritis Treatment

Your treatment will depend on several things, including the cause of your arthritis. Your doctor might recommend one or more of these.

Home remedies

It may help to cut back on certain activities or sports. Or you could rest your elbow after exercise to relieve stress.

Heating pads can loosen stiff joints or relax muscles. Ice eases symptom flare-ups and swelling.

Nonsurgical treatments

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen and naproxen, ease pain, inflammation, and swelling. If necessary, your doctor might prescribe stronger drugs or shots of cortisone, a steroid that can ease pain for a few months.

Elbow braces and splints offer extra support for the joint. And physical therapy can help you avoid stress on your elbow, build strength and mobility, and manage pain.

Surgery

You might need surgery if other treatments don’t work. Procedures for arthritis include:

  • Arthroscopy. Your doctor makes a few small cuts around the joint and inserts thin instruments through them to take out pieces of bone, cartilage, or damaged tissue. They can also smooth out rough surfaces. Because of the size of the cuts, this procedure usually has the fastest recovery time.
  • Synovectomy. The doctor makes a larger cut to remove bone spurs or damaged areas from the lining of the joint (called the synovium).
  • Arthroplasty. In severe cases, you might have the elbow joint replaced with an artificial joint.

Elbow Arthritis Outlook

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 a month.

Don’t ignore your symptoms. Your doctor can recommend treatment that can ease the pain, reduce stiffness and swelling, and prevent more joint damage.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Cedars-Sinai: “Arthritis of the Elbow.”

American Academy of Osteopathic Surgeons: “Osteoarthritis of the Elbow.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Juvenile Arthritis (JA),” “When Elbow Pain May Mean Arthritis.”

CDC: “Arthritis-Related Statistics.”

American College of Rheumatology: “Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

UpToDate: “Evaluation of elbow pain in adults,” “Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of osteoarthritis.”

Stanford Health Care: “Elbow Arthritis.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Post-Traumatic Arthritis.”

Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Elbow Arthritis: Treatment Options.”

University of Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine: “Elbow Arthritis.”

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