Common Elbow Problems and Injuries

As one of the major joints in the body, the elbow is susceptible to many injuries, from broken bones to daily wear and tear. Many minor elbow-related injuries involve the major nerve in the elbow–the “funny bone”– that can cause numbness or tingling when injured. This sensation usually subsides on its own and isn’t serious.

Other minor elbow conditions can involve swelling, inflammation, or bruising due to mild injury, while serious injuries like broken bones and joint issues can cause pain and decreased range of motion. Most elbow issues are caused by direct injury, especially during sports, strenuous work, or other physical activities. Children are more likely to injure their elbows from physical injury due to their typically energetic and active lifestyles, while older people are more likely to encounter elbows problems due to the weakened muscles, tendons, and bones that accompany aging.

Types of Injury

Acute or Sudden Injury

Acute injuries occur as a result of direct physical injury and impact that can cause the elbow to break or bend abnormally. Often, bruising may happen quickly after injury and may cause swelling. Some common forms of minor and major acute injuries include:


  • Bruises: Tiny breaks in blood vessels that occur during injury may cause discoloration, swelling, and tenderness.
  • Ligament and tendon injuries: These tissues that connect muscle to bone can be stretched or torn, causing decreased range of motion.
  • Sprains and pulled muscles: Twisting or bending muscles, especially those in the ankles, beyond their capacity can make stretching or moving these muscles especially painful and difficult.
  • Broken bones: Heavy impact or excessive pressure can cause hairline fractures or complete breaks in the affected bone.
  • Joint injuries: Dislocation, ligament tears, and certain medical conditions like arthritis can cause issues in the joints.

Injury from Overexertion

Overuse injuries occur when the elbow is used frequently and repetitively for a strenuous activity, like regular intense exercise regimes or work activities that are physically demanding. These injuries can occur slowly over time and present their own set of issues. Common types of injuries and conditions from overexertion include:


  • Bursitis: Repeated pressure on the bursa, the small sacs of fluid that cushion friction in the joints, can cause pain, inflammation, redness, and decreased range of motion.
  • Tendinitis: Overuse of the elbow can cause a series of microtears in the tendon. Tendinitis sports injuries include tennis elbow, or overuse of the forearm muscles, and golfer’s elbow, which causes pain in the medial (inner) part of the elbow.
  • Ulnar compression: Repeated elbow motions can pinch the ulnar nerve in the elbow, which can cause numbness, tingling, and difficulty moving or stretching the arm.

Treatment

Treatment for elbow injuries varies based on the nature and severity of the injury in question. Minor injuries normally clear up on their own and can be alleviated by simple treatment methods like:

  • Icing inflamed or irritated areas
  • First aid measures for cuts and pulled muscles
  • Rest, in order to avoid putting further pressure or strain on the elbow

Major injuries can call for medical attention and more intensive methods of care, including:

  • Immobilization with a brace, splint, or cast
  • Physical therapy to restore movement and strength
  • Prescription medication
  • Surgery, typically to assist joint- and ligament-related injuries