Definition and Overview

The elbow is a joint that is responsible for the flexibility of the arms, allowing us to perform certain movements such as being able to extend the forearms. It is composed of ligaments, which hold the joints together, and tendons, which attach the bones to the muscles and muscles to other muscles such as triceps and biceps.

Because of the many parts of the elbows, they are prone to different problems such as inflammation. These problems can be congenital or a result of an underlying disease such as arthritis.

Causes of Condition

There are two major reasons for elbow problems: acute trauma and repetitive use.

Acute trauma refers to sudden pain or injury. It can be caused by a vehicle accident or bumping the elbow during activities such as sports. A person may also acquire acute trauma if he’s been hit by a blunt object. This type of injury often results in fractures, which usually require immediate medical intervention.

Repetitive use, meanwhile, is a gradual process. As the person constantly uses the arms and the elbows are also engaged in the process, the parts of the elbow such as the ligaments and the tendons, as well as the muscles, start to wear. They can also be strained or pulled, causing a certain degree of pain or discomfort. A popular type of elbow problem caused by repetitive use is tennis elbow, which affects individuals who regularly play the sport. The same condition can also affect those whose work requires the constant use of keyboards of PCs and laptops. Poor posture including not maintaining the arms in a 90-degree angle can cause stress to the elbows. Another condition is bursitis, or the inflammation of the bursa, a sac that contains fluid and works by cushioning the bones, tendons, and muscles.

Infection can also lead to elbow problems. As the bacteria travel through the bloodstream, the person may feel discomfort in the joints.

Key Symptoms

  • Tenderness or soreness in the affected area
  • Pain that sometimes radiates to the shoulders
  • Difficulty moving the arms
  • Stiffness of the joint
  • Pain in the joint
  • Elbows feel warm when touched

Who to See and Treatments Available

Usually, patients see their general practitioners first whenever they have issues with their elbows unless the problem can already be diagnosed as a fracture. In this case, an orthopedic surgeon deals with it, and the situation is considered an emergency.

To make a diagnosis and to identify the cause of the elbow problem, doctors typically conduct a thorough physical test, feeling for any soreness or warmth in the affected area. They also perform interviews and check the patient’s medical records as existing diseases may also contribute to the problem.

Tests such as blood cell count (CBC) are helpful in diagnosing infections or the presence of inflammation. If there’s a suspected injury, imaging examinations such as X-rays are needed. If the condition is complex, and the pain doesn’t subside after treatment, the GPs may refer the patient to orthopedic specialists, who may request for tests like MRI to get a much clearer picture of the condition.

Treatment options for elbow problems include the following:

  • Sprains and strains can be managed with ice/hot compresses and rest (limiting mobility or use of the elbows and the arms to avoid further injury)
  • Pain relievers can help alleviate the discomfort or symptoms
  • Management of the underlying disease
  • Surgery is an option in case there’s a fracture or other standard treatments are ineffective

  • Kane SF, Lynch JH, Taylor JC. Evaluation of elbow pain in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89:649-657.

  • Regan WD, Morrey BF. Physical examination of the elbow. In: Morrey BF, Sanchez-Sotelo J, eds. The Elbow and Its Disorders. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2004:chap 4.

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