When should you see a doctor for elbow pain?

The elbow is a fairly complex structure made up of bones and joints, ligaments and tendons, muscles and nerves. When all of these parts work together as they should, the elbow allows you to flex and extent from the joint and rotate your forearm and hand. The elbow’s main function is to provide mobility while stabilizing the lower arm and hand. 

When one or more parts of the elbow – or any of its surrounding structures – are injured or not working properly, you’re likely to experience elbow joint pain. While some elbow pain can be cured by home treatments, some elbow injuries do require treatment from a medical professional.

Elbow Anatomy

Elbow Pain Causes

One of the most common causes of elbow pain is overuse. Many occupations, sports, hobbies and workouts require repetitive motions of the hand, wrist or arm that can lead to a variety of overuse injuries. While tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow are common overuse injuries typically associated with their namesakes, you don’t have to be a tennis player or golfer to suffer from overuse injuries. 

Painters, plumbers, cooks, musicians and anyone whose work requires repetitive motions with the hand, wrist or arm may experience elbow pain. Likewise, elbow pain when lifting is common in people who regularly lift weights or move and lift things as part of their profession. 

What type of doctor do you see for elbow pain?

While some causes of elbow pain can be treated with simple home care and rest, both common elbow injuries and more serious elbow injuries from impact and trauma may require treatment by an elbow specialist. 

Orthopedic elbow specialists are medical doctors that treat the musculoskeletal system and have completed additional years of training focused specifically on the elbow. Depending on the injury and scope of treatment, evaluation by an orthopedic elbow surgeon may be necessary. 

Common Elbow Injuries

Tennis Elbow

Officially known as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is a repetitive stress injury where inflammation and possible microtears in the tendons that connect the muscles in the forearm to the outside of the elbow cause outer elbow pain.

Golfer’s Elbow

Golfer’s elbow, or medial epicondylitis, is a repetitive stress injury similar to tennis elbow. Instead of outside elbow pain, golfer’s elbow causes inner elbow pain due to damage to the muscles and tendons that control the wrist and fingers. 

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury

The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) stabilizes the inside of the elbow as it flexes and extends. UCL injuries are most often due to repetitive stress from overhead movement and are most common in athletes who compete in throwing sports. Baseball pitchers, in particular, suffer from UCL tears that require Tommy John surgery

Biceps and Triceps Tendinitis

Biceps and triceps tendon injuries can occur near the shoulder, in the muscle in the middle of the upper arm or in the tendons that connect the biceps and triceps to the elbow. Tendinitis occurs when one or more of the biceps or triceps tendons are irritated or injured. 

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis of the elbow is commonly a “wear and tear” injury where the cartilage surface of the elbow is worn down or damaged, causing pain and stiffness. Elbow osteoarthritis can also result from previous trauma, such as a dislocated elbow, fractured arm or elbow fracture. 

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Cubital tunnel syndrome (also known as ulnar nerve entrapment) occurs when the ulnar nerve, which passes through a tunnel of bone, ligament and muscle (cubital tunnel) on the inside of the elbow is irritated, swollen or inflamed. 

Stress Fractures

Blunt force trauma can cause stress fractures to the olecranon (the end of the ulna) at the point of the elbow. 

Dislocated Elbow

A dislocated elbow occurs when the bones of the forearm (ulna and radius) become out of place in relation to the upper arm bone (the humerus). These three bones meet at the elbow joint and most dislocations occur from blunt force trauma to the joint.

When to See a Doctor for Elbow Pain

If you have an obvious traumatic injury, such as a broken, protruding bone or a deformity in your elbow, you should seek emergency care. 

You should call an orthopedic elbow specialist if:

  • You’re having difficulty or are unable to move your elbow normally
  • You’re unable to use your arm or rotate your hand and wrist
  • You’re experiencing severe pain, bruising or swelling on or around your elbow joint

You should schedule an appointment with an elbow specialist if:

  • You’re experiencing pain even when you’re not using your arm
  • Your pain, swelling or redness increases
  • Your elbow pain doesn’t improve with RICE (see below)
  • The type of pain changes
  • There is new swelling, redness or a lump on or around your elbow
  • The pain returns when you resume normal activities 

Home Treatments

Depending on the injury, most elbow pain treatments can be done at home. The first step is to protect the elbow from further injury – which means limiting repetitive movements, lifting, etc.

Once the elbow is protected, follow the RICE protocol. 

Rest: Avoid the activity that caused the injury and stop all painful activities.
Ice: If the elbow is swollen, apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes one to three times a day to reduce swelling.
Compression: Follow icing with a compression bandage to help further reduce swelling. 
Elevation. Keep the hand, wrist and elbow elevated. 

If needed, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be used to relive pain and bring down swelling. 

If you’re experiencing elbow pain and would like to talk to one of our orthopedic elbow surgeons, or if you have questions about your elbow injury, please contact us or comment below. 

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