Elbow pain can result from repetition or overuse of your arm during your favorite activity or the result of a new fitness routine that has you challenging your body in new ways. Being active is important, so whether elbow pain is a result of chronic overuse or new use, it’s time to figure out the reason behind that persistent pain.
Identifying potential causes of elbow pain
The key to properly treating elbow pain is to understand the cause. Aside from an obvious fall or other trauma to the elbow, there are many more subtle causes of elbow pain and injury. Whenever you change your activity level or take on a repetitive task, you can expect to be sore. But it’s important to understand the difference between temporary muscle aches and something more serious. Here are three of the most common symptoms and how to treat elbow pain.
Severe swelling or redness at the back of the elbow may be bursitis. Healthy tissue lies flat against your bone, but an aggravated bursa sac presents as visible inflammation of the cushion between bones in the elbow. Initial treatment often
includes rest, ice, and anti-inflammatories to reduce swelling.
Rest and immobilizing the area are important because continued movement and pressure on the inflamed bursa will not allow it to calm down and heal. People who have recurring bursitis can also consider drainage of the bursa or in some rare cases, surgical removal of the bursa if persistent.
Continuous pain on the inside or outside of the elbow along with forearm soreness could be (inside) golfer’s elbow or (outside) tennis elbow. This pain is often more severe when people rotate their arm or hold on to things. Among the most common elbow injuries, they’re not reserved for tennis players or golfers. Repetitive motion of many types such as typing or repetitive lifting can be the cause.
As with many injuries, the same initial conservative treatments are often recommended: rest, ice, and NSAIDs can help with pain and reduce swelling. Some patients also participate in physical therapy or receive steroid injections. The most severe cases may require surgery. If you have a muscle or tendon tear or other serious damage, continued activity could make it worse, so see your orthopedic specialist for a diagnosis soon.
Numbness or tingling in the elbow, arm or finger may be different than pain, but is disruptive nonetheless. Pinching of the median nerve at the wrist, known as carpal tunnel syndrome, is one common cause of numbness in the thumb, index and long fingers. Pinching of the ulnar nerve (cubital tunnel syndrome), which wraps around the elbow, can also causes numbness or tingling but typically on the remaining fingers.
Work activities or exercise that put pressure on the elbow, or those that require the elbow to remain bent for extended periods can aggravate or pinch the ulnar nerve. This nerve is the least protected of the nerves in the elbow, which makes it more vulnerable to compression.
Keeping your elbow straight and avoiding long periods of bending is the first course of action you can take if you’ve been diagnosed with cubital tunnel syndrome. Many people benefit from a brace or splint that keeps them from bending their elbows while sleeping. Physical therapy can reduce stiffness and there are several surgical options if your nerve compression is severe or muscle damage has occurred.
While symptoms can vary widely, any chronic elbow pain, numbness or swelling means it’s time to see a doctor. He or she can provide a proper diagnosis and help you treat elbow pain. Your orthopedic upper extremity specialist can also help you find ways to remain active while still allowing your elbow to rest and heal.
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