Are you wondering how to treat elbow joint pain? The arms are an important tool for the body, with the elbow serving as an integral joint. If you have pain in the elbow, we got you covered. Before we delve into the diagnosis and treatment, some structural understanding is required. Understanding the structure of the elbow joint is crucial in understanding the cause of the pain and administering the treatment.
Here we look at the joint in detail, effective methods of pain relief, and all the ways it can be treated. By the end, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of your elbow joint pain. Let’s get started!
Elbow Joint Pain
The elbow joint serves as a connector of the forearm bones to the upper arm bone. The upper arm bone is also called the humerus. The elbow joint consists of three bones joined together with cartilages.
Cartilages are the primary connective tissue in the entire body and have a rubber-like structure. They help maintain structural integrity in some parts of the body and assist the body parts in their function. The cartilages in the elbow joint help the bones slide over each other smoothly. Additionally, they also act as shock absorbers to protect the joint.
The elbow joint enables two forms of movement in the forearm. These motions are the rotation of the forearm and hand (pointing the palm up and down) and the curl motion of the arm (the motion for a simple bicep curl).
Pain in the elbow joint can be due to a multitude of factors. Depending on the part of the joint affected, the treatment and severity change. Since there are cartilages, bones, ligaments, and muscles around the elbow, the cause of the pain can differ. Each of these issues has its respective methods of diagnosis. Some of them may be serious conditions, while others are manageable. Let us discuss them one at a time.
Elbow pain is a very vague term as far as the diagnosis is concerned. The elbow joint has tendons, muscles, bones, and cartilages working together to enable its function. Any injury or problem with any one of these can result in pain signals to the brain.
It is important to understand that pain is not inherently a bad thing; it is a natural self-preservation response of the body. Pain is an important biological function that helps us notice problems with our bodies and prevents us from harming ourselves further.
Elbow pain can result from many conditions, but commonly it is due to the spraining of muscles and tendons. The elbow joint is involved in nearly all activities requiring the use of arms. These activities can be as simple as eating food to strenuous exercises in the gym.
Overexertion of the muscles and tendons results in a sprain. Sports like tennis, cricket, and baseball require extensive use of the elbow joint for proper form. Similarly, the elbow joint plays a key role in both bodyweight and weighted upper-body exercises.
It is very common for you to injure some muscle or joint in the gym or during sports. These injuries usually stem from either bad form or posture during exercises. In other cases, it can be due to high-intensity exercises with weight beyond your capabilities.
The spraining of a muscle or tendon occurs when the physical stress on them exceeds its bearable capacity. Elbow pain is most commonly due to sprains and is very manageable. Usually, the pain will go away on its own over time as the muscle or tendon recovers from the sprain.
Pain on the Inside of the Elbow
Pain on the inside of the elbow refers to pain from the inside of the joint instead of the muscles or tendons surrounding the bone. Diagnosing the cause of such pain requires using an X-ray to accurately judge the joint’s condition.
If the pain you feel in your elbow region is not coming from a muscle tear or tendon sprain, then chances are you have an elbow fracture. Elbow fractures can occur due to trauma (physical damage to the body that causes injury).
Other than fractures, you can have a dislocated elbow joint. The dislocation can be due to extreme movement or a large amount of force applied against the joint. Dislocation is often visually apparent from the observed abnormal elbow bone placement. Elbow pain originating from inside the elbow can also be due to arthritis.
Suffice to say, there is no one reason for the internal elbow pain. It is best to consult a doctor, as you might need to get an X-Ray of your elbow for diagnosis.
Tendonitis refers to the inflammation of a tendon. A tendon is the part of the muscle connecting the muscle tissue to the bone. A sprain is the tearing of a tendon under physical stress or trauma. While in tendonitis, there is inflammation on the tendon. Inflammation has five signs
- Restriction of Movement
In case of inflammation, the affected area exhibits swelling. It may have a slightly reddish colouration, and it will feel warm to the touch. The inflamed area hurts when touched, and the pain limits the movement of the person.
Inflammation in any part of the body is a sign of trouble, and you should seek medical assistance for treatment. However, it should be noted that inflammation is a part of the natural healing process of the body.
The main tendons of the elbow joint are the bicep and triceps tendons connecting the elbow to the upper arm. However, there are tendons from the forearm muscles as well. In elbow tendonitis, these tendons suffer from inflammation. Therefore, people with elbow tendonitis are unable to move their arms due to pain.
Tennis Elbow Treatment
In lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as tennis elbow, the tendon connecting the forearm with the elbow suffers from inflammation. Golf elbow is also a condition with inflammation in the forearm-elbow tendon.
The difference between the tennis and golf elbow lies in the affected part where the person feels the pain. In the golf elbow, the person feels pain inside the elbow joint. In contrast, in tennis elbow, the pain seems to be on the outer part of the elbow.
In the tennis elbow, the tendon suffering from inflammation is responsible for the backward rotation of the hand (back of the hand towards yourself). Therefore, a person suffering from tennis elbow has their hand bent inward as the muscle incapable of straightening the hand. As is the case with any inflammation, a visit to the doctor is in order if you are suffering from a tennis elbow.
A person with a tennis elbow may feel the pain originate from the outer side of the elbow. In some cases, the pain can also radiate below or above the elbow. The simplest cure for the tennis elbow is resting the affected area to help a speedy recovery. There are methods for reducing the pain from the tennis elbow. The method depends on the severity of pain and discomfort the person feels. Here are some of the possible methods.
Habitual physical therapy can help the body adjust to the pain and simultaneously hasten the recovery process of the body. However, the person administering the therapy needs to be careful not to overstimulate the tendon and muscles of the patient. Overstimulation can lead to further injury and complications.
The person suffering from tennis elbow can also try flexibility exercises to help relieve some of the symptoms. Advised flexibility exercise, according to medical professionals, is to hold your injured arm up with fingers facing down, using the other hand to slightly stretch the injured arm’s hand upward.
The range of motion should be below the point of pain. As long as there is minimal to no pain, daily repetition of the exercise can help a speedy recovery and alleviation of pain.
Steroid Injections (Cortisone)
Cortisone is a steroid useful for suppressing inflammation of muscles and tendons. It is a fast-acting alternative to physical therapy. However, using cortisone injections for unhealthy tendons is discouraged.
Cortisone can help alleviate the pain, but it can also cause flaring of pain. According to a study by Bisset L et al in 2006, cortisone injections help alleviate the pain and symptoms of inflammation in the initial six weeks of the injury. However, in the long term physiotherapy provides better results with fewer drawbacks.
While it is ill-advised to use steroid injections, you can opt for one should the pain be severe enough for temporary relief.
Platelet-rich Plasma Injections
Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections are a popular treatment for tendonitis on the internet. However, the medical effectiveness of PRP is without much support. PRP injections are claimed to be an alternative to steroid injections as the latter may be harmful in the medium term. However, their effectiveness is no greater than placebos as indicated by a 2021 study by Karjalainen TV et al.
Platelet-rich plasma does have growth factors in high concentration and thus is capable of helping tendons regrow faster. However, no strong clinical evidence is available to justify its effectiveness in treating Tennis Elbow.
Tennis elbow surgery is an extreme option not commonly put into practice by surgeons. Your doctor may advise surgery if the pain from the tendon persists for 6-12months. Tennis elbow surgeries are only required in cases where the tendon suffers large tears due to sudden physical activity.
Therefore, the affected tendon cannot repair itself properly over time. The surgery will involve a small cut on your elbow to remove the damaged part of the tendon and reattachment of the healthy tendon tissue to the bone. During the surgery, the surgeon may also remove some part of your elbow bone to assist with the blood flow for a speedy recovery.
After the surgery, your doctor will put a brace on your arm that will immobilize it completely. The brace will come off after 3 weeks and the doctor will advise you to continue physical therapy for better recovery. Surgery is a last resort method and in many cases will not be necessary. Nevertheless, if your elbow pain does not improve even after six months, consider consulting your doctor for surgery.
Elbow Pain Treatment at Home
Short-Term Pain Relief
Despite steroid injections being more effective in the first six weeks of the injury, there are other methods for short-term pain relief. These methods do not involve injections and are therefore easier to employ.
You can take over-the-counter medicines such as aspirins or paracetamol for pain relief. Furthermore, you can use locally applied anti-pain gels to massage the elbow region for pain relief. If you are suffering from tendonitis, you should consult your doctor for the prescribed dosage of anti-inflammatory medicines.
Remember that it is best to avoid taking medicines as long as the pain is bearable. Unbearable pain is any pain that prevents you from falling asleep despite being tired. If your sprain pain does not get better even after 48 hours, consult a doctor.
You can also use arm braces to secure your elbow in addition to medicines. Elbow braces prevent you from injuring yourself from movement and help hasten the body’s healing process. For fractures or dislocated elbows, you should visit a doctor for splints and plasters to secure the elbow joint. All upper body bone fractures, including the elbow, take three weeks for a complete recovery.
You can also employ the RICE method to alleviate elbow pain. RICE is mnemonic for the four practices used for soft-tissue treatment. The RICE method stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
- According to the RICE method
- Prioritize giving your elbow maximum rest
- Use ice packs to help with the pain and swelling
- You can use compressive bandages or braces to secure the elbow for better rest
- Elevate the elbow above body height by a pillow or support
Elbow Pain Exercise
Apart from the flexibility exercises recommended as physical therapy for tennis elbow, you can lightly massage the area in pain with locally applied painkiller gels. Slight stretching within the non-painful range of motion can help the body recover faster. Additionally, you can opt for strengthening exercises once your elbow has recovered a bit.
There are two kinds of strengthening exercises for elbow tendons:
- Eccentric exercises
- Kinetic chain exercises
An eccentric exercise is any exercise where the body works against gravity. You can use a resistance band or lightweight dumbbells to exercise your elbow tendons and muscles.
To start, lay your arm down comfortably on the edge of the table with the hand hanging. Now, use the resistance bands or dumbbells as resistance for the muscles to overcome. Now, raise your hand against the resistance just below the point it starts to hurt. Release your hand slowly and repeat the exercise.
Keep in mind that these exercises require you to be able to easily complete the flexibility exercise without pain. You can repeat this exercise four times a week. In the case of pain, discontinue the exercise routine for a few days and begin again with lower resistance to get your muscles used to the workout.
For those who play sports, such as tennis, the kinetic chain exercise is the best way to get back into shape after an elbow joint injury. Kinetic chain exercises require you to slowly perform the action that involves the activation of the elbow joint in the sports.
For example, for tennis players, you can practice the backhand swing with only a racket. These exercises should be performed slowly with emphasis on control and stability overpower. Like eccentric exercises, you can do these exercises four times a week for a speedy recovery.
How do I get rid of my elbow pain?
The best way to get rid of the elbow pain is to give the elbow joint as much rest as possible with occasional physical therapy. If you feel the pain is too severe, you can opt for PRP or steroid injections however these can harm you long-term. The body is capable of fixing itself, so sometimes patience is all you need.
What is a home remedy for elbow pain?
To treat elbow pain at home, you should use over-the-counter available painkillers and gels. You can also massage the muscle and tendon lightly to improve blood flow and speed up recovery. Ice packs are useful in reducing pain caused by inflammation or injury. More than anything, do not move the elbow around. Using a brace is helpful as it prevents further injury from movement.
How to fix inner elbow pain?
If you are feeling inner elbow pain, it is best to consult a doctor for a detailed examination. It is hard to diagnose the root of the inner elbow pain without an X-ray and other tests. Therefore, to fix inner elbow pain, you must consult your physio since, at times, you might even need to undergo surgeries. Hence, trying and fix your inner elbow pain by yourself is ill-advised.