The 8 Most Common Elbow Injuries

Does your elbow hurt? We are here to help you. In this article, we review some of the most common elbow injuries and their causes, symptoms, and treatments.

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Juhi Modi Medical Writer

Elbow Injuries

The elbow is a joint that connects the upper arm and forearm, and like any other part of the body, it can get injured. Most people have bumped the “funny bone” at the back of the elbow at least once in their life. Sometimes the elbow can feel sore after activity.

Elbow injuries can lead to symptoms such as pain, weakness, numbness, tingling, and limited range of motion. At Injurymap, we understand how bothersome these symptoms can be. We are here to help you better understand elbow injuries through this comprehensive guide.

Minor aches and pains in the elbow can often be treated with home remedies and rehab exercises. For example, the shooting pain and numbness from bumping the funny bone is intense but short-lived and usually goes away on its own.1 Remember, if your symptoms are severe or persistent, you should always seek medical care.

The most common cause of elbow pain is injury. The pain can make it difficult to do routine activities of daily living (eating, bathing, getting dressed, toileting and hygiene, etc.). Sometimes you develop elbow pain and cannot recall any injury, especially if the symptoms develop gradually during daily activities.

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What causes elbow injuries?

A common cause of elbow injuries is sports and recreational activities, especially contact sports such as soccer and football or high-speed sports such as skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and hockey.

Other causes of elbow injuries can include work-related tasks and projects at home, especially those that place stress on the joint or require repetitive movements of the elbow. Accidents and falls can lead to fractures of the elbow bones – older adults are at higher risk of this type of elbow injury because they have weaker bones and thinner muscle mass.

Types of Elbow Injuries

There are two common types of elbow injuries. Elbow injuries can be acute (sudden) as the result of a direct blow or jamming, twisting, bending, or jerking. This can lead to different types of elbow injuries, ranging from minor bruises in the skin to more serious damage. Injuries can include sprains and strains in the tendons and ligaments of the joint. The muscles may tear or rupture. The bones of the elbow joint may suffer fractures or dislocations.1

The other type of elbow injury develops gradually and includes things like bursitis (inflammation of bursae around the elbow joint), tendinitis (inflammation of tendons) due to overuse, and pinched nerves. You don’t have to live with pain and other symptoms of elbow injuries. Injurymap provides you with several exercises developed by professionals to prevent and rehabilitate elbow injuries.

1. Tennis elbow

What is a tennis elbow?

Tennis elbow (medical name: lateral epicondylitis) is a painful condition of the elbow caused by overuse. It is an inflammation of the tendons on the outer side of the elbow (tendons are bands of fibrous tissue that connect muscle to bone).

Causes of tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is an overuse injury. It occurs when you repeatedly use the muscles of the forearm. Not surprisingly, racquet sports such as tennis can cause this condition, especially playing backhand with poor technique.

Playing tennis is not the only cause of tennis elbow. It can also be caused by painting, using tools, cutting up foods like meats, and repeated use of a computer mouse. People with jobs that require repetitive motions of the elbow, such as painters, plumbers, carpenters, and butchers are at higher risk of developing tennis elbow. It is most common in adults between 30 and 50 years old.2

Symptoms of tennis elbow

The main symptoms of tennis elbow are pain and muscle weakness. The pain can radiate into the forearm and wrist. The weakness can make it difficult to grip objects, shake hands, and turn doorknobs.2,3

Check out our full article about Tennis elbow here

Treatment and recovery time

Tennis elbow can usually be managed with rest, icing, and over-the-counter pain medications to relieve symptoms. Rehab exercises can help to gently stretch and strengthen the muscles around the elbow joint. For more severe symptoms, you may need to wear a counterforce forearm brace or strap to reduce stress and ease pressure on the injured area.

If the tennis elbow was caused by playing a racquet sport, working on your technique may be helpful. You will most likely begin to feel better in a few weeks as the tendon heals, but complete recovery from tennis elbow can take 6-12 months.4,5

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2. Golfer’s elbow

What is a golfer’s elbow?

Golfer’s elbow (medical name: medial epicondylitis) is a painful condition that is similar to tennis elbow, the difference being that the golfer’s elbow causes pain on the inner side of the elbow. Like tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow is caused by damage to the muscles and tendons around the elbow joint due to repeated stress.

Golfer's elbow

Causes of golfer’s elbow

As the name suggests, playing golf can result in a golfer’s elbow. It is often caused by improper throwing, lifting, or hitting movements. It can also be caused by forceful movements of the wrist and fingers.6,7

Besides golfers, tennis players can also develop this condition, especially with excessive use of topspin or if they’re using a small, heavy racquet. Improper techniques in sports such as javelin, archery, football, weightlifting, and baseball are other potential causes of golfer’s elbow (it’s sometimes also called little leaguer’s elbow). Construction workers, carpenters, and plumbers are at occupational risk of golfer’s elbow.6 7

Symptoms of golfer’s elbow

People with golfer’s elbow usually experience pain on the inner side of the elbow, which can sometimes radiate to the forearm. Some movements may make the pain worse. Other symptoms of golfer’s elbow include tenderness to touch, weakness, stiffness of the joints, numbness and tingling.6 7

Treatment and recovery time

Rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain reliever medications can help manage golfer’s elbow. A counterforce brace may help reduce tension in the affected area. The mainstay of treatment for golfer’s elbow is stretching and strengthening of the joint. Training exercises are very effective in strengthening the muscles so that they are strong enough to absorb physical stress. Recovery time for golfer’s elbow can vary from 6 months to 2 years. The best way to prevent recurrence is to exercise the joint regularly.8

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3. Elbow bursitis

What is elbow bursitis?

Elbow bursitis (medical name: olecranon bursitis) is a painful inflammation of the olecranon bursa, a thin fluid-filled lubricating sac located at the bony tip of the elbow. Irritation and inflammation of the olecranon bursa can cause several symptoms.9

Causes of elbow bursitis

Elbow bursitis can be the result of trauma (injury) or excessive pressure from placing the elbow on hard surfaces for prolonged periods. The symptoms usually develop gradually over several months. Elbow bursitis is an occupational hazard for plumbers and AC techs who lean on their elbows in small spaces. Certain athletic activities like the elbow plank can also cause olecranon bursitis.9

Elbow bursitis

Symptoms of elbow bursitis

Pain and swelling are the first symptoms of elbow bursitis. Pressure on the elbow or leaning on the elbow may worsen the symptoms. The skin in the area may become red and warm to touch.9

Treatment and recovery time

Application of ice packs and over-the-counter pain medications can help relieve symptoms. Once the acute pain and inflammation settle, it’s important to begin working on muscle strengthening and elbow range of motion exercises. Recovery time can vary from a few weeks to a few months. Improving muscle strength and endurance is an effective way to avoid recurrences.10

4. Cubital tunnel syndrome

What is cubital tunnel syndrome?

Cubital tunnel syndrome is a medical condition that occurs due to the entrapment of the ulnar nerve. The ulnar nerve is one of the three main nerves in the arm. Entrapment of the ulnar nerve in the area of the elbow compresses the nerve and irritates it, leading to symptoms.

Normal cubital tunnel

Causes of cubital tunnel syndrome

The exact cause of cubital tunnel syndrome remains unknown in many cases. The ulnar nerve is vulnerable to entrapment in the elbow because it travels through a narrow space called the cubital tunnel with very little protective tissue surrounding it.

Risk factors for cubital tunnel syndrome include keeping the elbow bent or leaning on the elbow for long periods, which places pressure on the nerve. Fluid buildup in the elbow (due to bursitis, for example) can also compress the nerve. A direct blow to the “funny bone” at the tip of the elbow can produce an electric shock-like sensation in the nerve.11

Symptoms of cubital tunnel syndrome

The most common symptom is numbness and tingling in the little finger, which comes and goes. There may also be a weakness of grip and difficulty in manipulating objects, playing an instrument, or typing.11

Compressed ulnar nerve

Treatment and recovery time

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, pronounced n-seds) can help reduce swelling around the nerve. You may be prescribed a splint or brace to keep the elbow straight. Nerve gliding exercises can allow the nerve to pass more easily through the cubital tunnel and prevent arm and wrist stiffness.

A surgical procedure called cubital tunnel release or ulnar nerve release may be necessary in more severe cases, and recovery time from surgery can vary from several weeks to several months. It can take up to 6 months for the numbness and tingling to go away.12

5. Elbow fractures

What are elbow fractures?

An elbow fracture is a break in one or more of the bones of the elbow joint. It can involve the lower end of the humerus (the long bone in the upper arm), the upper end of the radius (one of the two large bones in the forearm), or the olecranon (the bony prominence of the elbow).13

Causes of elbow fractures

Fractures of the elbow can occur from a fall, twisting injury, or direct blow to the elbow. For example, falling directly on the elbow, an abnormal twisting of the arm or a blow to the elbow from a car door or baseball bat can all cause elbow fractures.13

Symptoms of elbow fractures

Pain, swelling, and stiffness of the elbow joint are the most common symptoms of fractures. If the joint is dislocated, there may be a visible deformity (the joint may appear out of shape). There may also be numbness, tingling, and weakness in the arm, wrist, and hand.13

Treatment and recovery time

Unstable fractures and displaced bones may require surgery to stabilize the joint. Non-surgical treatment can include casting or use of a sling. Recovery time for elbow fractures is about 6 to 8 weeks. It is important to exercise the elbow, as soon as the doctor allows it, to regain movement.14

6. Ulnar collateral ligament injury

What is ulnar collateral ligament injury?

The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is a ligament (a thick band of tissue) that connects the lower end of the humerus (the long bone in the upper arm) to the upper end of the ulna (one of the two large bones in the forearm). This ligament can sometimes get injured, causing symptoms.15

Ulnar collateral ligament

Causes of ulnar collateral ligament injury

The ulnar collateral ligament is commonly injured in baseball pitchers and javelin throwers who perform repeated overhead movements. The repeated stress of the movements can lead to a tear in the UCL.15

Symptoms of ulnar collateral ligament injury

Pain on the inner side of the elbow is the most common symptom of UCL injury. Sometimes, there may be a sensation of a “pop” during a throwing motion, followed by intense pain.15

Treatment and recovery time

Treatment for an ulnar collateral ligament injury is rest, pain medications, and icing. Once the initial symptoms abate, it’s important to perform rehab exercises to strengthen the muscles around the elbow so that they can compensate for the injured ligament. Surgery may be needed in some people, depending on the extent of the UCL tear.15

7. Elbow sprains and strains

What are elbow strains and sprains?

The elbow joint is where the bones of the upper arm and forearm come together. The bones are supported by several muscles, tendons, and ligaments. A sprain is a stretch or tears in a ligament. A strain is a tear in a tendon or muscle.

Causes of elbow strains and sprains

A lack of flexibility and strength in the supporting structures of the joint, i.e., the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, can lead to these injuries. Elbow strains and sprains are commonly caused by repetitive use of the joint, such as during golf, tennis, or carpentry.1 Elbow sprains can also occur when you try to break a fall with an outstretched arm, by twisting movements, or a direct blow to the elbow.1,16

Symptoms of elbow sprains and strains

Pain, swelling, and tenderness are the main symptoms of elbow strains and sprains. There may be a limitation of movement with difficulty bending the elbow. The skin around the elbow can sometimes become red and warm to touch.1,16

Treatment and recovery time

Rest, ice, compression to reduce swelling, and pain medications are recommended. You may need to modify your activities for a short period to avoid stressing the joint. Most mild elbow strains and sprains heal on their own. After the initial treatment with rest, ice, and compression, rehab exercises are very important to build strength and flexibility and avoid recurrences.1,16

8. Nursemaid’s elbow (mainly young children)

What is a nursemaid’s elbow?

Nursemaid’s elbow is a dislocation of the radius. The radius is one of the two large bones in the forearm. It can sometimes slip out of position. The injury is also called radial head dislocation.17

Elbow subloxation

Causes of nursemaid’s elbow

The injury is common in young children. It usually occurs in children under the age of 5 when the joint is not strong enough to withstand strong forces. A nursemaid’s elbow can occur when the child is pulled hard by the wrist or hand or lifted by one arm, for example, to help the child over a step or curb. A nursemaid’s elbow injury can also occur while swinging the child with their arms, trying to stop a fall, or rolling over in an unusual posture.17

Symptoms of nursemaid’s elbow

The child will cry immediately due to pain and refuse to move the elbow. He or she may keep the elbow slightly bent and pressed up against the body. The child will continue to refuse to move the elbow even when the pain subsides.17

Treatment and recovery time

It’s important to seek medical attention for a nursemaid’s elbow. Apply ice to the elbow and keep it immobile as much as possible while you make your way to the emergency room.

A healthcare provider can fix the dislocation with gentle manipulation. You should NOT try to do this yourself. Without treatment, a nursemaid’s elbow can lead to permanent inability to fully move the elbow. To prevent nursemaid’s elbow from occurring, never lift a child by one arm or swing a child by the hand or forearm (always provide support under both arms).17

When is it time to see a doctor about my elbow pain?

Many minor elbow injuries can heal with home treatments and rehab exercises. However, it’s important to seek medical attention for an elbow injury if you experienced one of the things below18.

Medical attention

  • You have suffered severe trauma, have bleeding that is not controlled with direct pressure, or have symptoms of shock (dizziness, lightheadedness, weakness, confusion, loss of consciousness)
  • You are having trouble moving your arm due to swelling or pain
  • Your affected arm is pale, cold, or blue compared to the other arm
  • You have coexisting medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or HIV
  • You take certain medications or supplements that can make symptoms worse
  • You have recently had surgery, injuries, or other health events
  • You have a history of heavy alcohol use, smoking, or drug use
  • Your symptoms have been present for more than a month
  • Your symptoms are worsening

Managing Elbow Injuries with Exercise

If you have injured your elbow, you may benefit from rehab exercises to help regain strength and normal range of motion. Elbow strengthening exercises will be an important component of rehabilitating your elbow injury. Strengthening exercises can help prevent similar injuries from recurring. Experts recommend gradually increasing the intensity and frequency of elbow rehab exercises and always starting an exercise session by warming up.

At Injurymap, we have a range of elbow exercises and stretches to help make your joints flexible and strong. The Injurymap app has hundreds of exercises for every muscle and joint in the body that can be performed by people of all abilities. Start slowly and gradually increase your reps and resistance. The IM app will demonstrate the correct techniques and postures so you can obtain maximum benefit. You can start by trying the 14 day free trial of the Injurymap app to see how it works.

Elbow injuries can be uncomfortable, even debilitating, to live with, but they don’t have to be. If you don’t have time to go to a physiotherapy office, the Injurymap app makes rehab exercises accessible to you in your home, so you can remain pain-free and injury-free with a low-cost exercise program.

Treat your pain with Injurymap

Download the app to get a customized program that addresses your specific pain with exercises.

About the author

Juhi Modi has two decades of experience as a medical writer with varied interests and an enduring passion for health, biology, and science. She uses her educational background in medicine to write science-backed articles for clients around the world

References:


  1. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/elbow 

  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tennis-elbow/symptoms-causes/syc-20351987?p=1 

  3. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/tennis-elbow-lateral-epicondylitis/ 

  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tennis-elbow/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20351991 

  5. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hw225372 

  6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/golfers-elbow/symptoms-causes/syc-20372868?p=1 

  7. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/golfers-elbow/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20372872 

  8. https://physioworks.com.au/injuries-conditions-1/golfers-elbow 

  9. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/elbow-olecranon-bursitis/ 

  10. https://physioworks.com.au/injuries-conditions-1/olecranon-bursitis 

  11. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/ulnar-nerve-entrapment-at-the-elbow-cubital-tunnel-syndrome/ 

  12. https://www.baptisthealth.com/pages/services/neuroscience-and-stroke/procedures/ulnar-nerve-release.aspx 

  13. https://handcare.assh.org/Anatomy/Details-Page/ArticleID/27965/Elbow-Fractures 

  14. https://www.ouh.nhs.uk/patient-guide/leaflets/files/14214Pradialhead.pdf 

  15. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/ulnar-collateral-ligament-ucl-injuries-of-the-elbow 

  16. https://nyulangone.org/conditions/elbow-sprains-strains/diagnosis  

  17. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000983.htm 

  18. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/elbow#aa136927