The elbow joint is made up of the humerus, radius and ulna bones with muscle and tendon support from forearm and upper arm muscles crossing the joint at the front, back and sides. Deeper down ligaments also offer support on both sides. We also have 3 nerves (radial, median & ulnar nerves) crossing the elbow joint in various locations that initiate sensation and movement as far as the hand and fingers.
Elbow pain can come from all of the above structures including overuse, different types of arthritis, ligament strain or tears, inflamed bursa, nerve entrapment and from bone fractures. It can also be referred pain from muscles and nerves of the neck, shoulder, upper arm, forearm and wrist. Often pain is from muscles over working to protect from things like poor posture, poor work habits or not enough supportive strength in other areas. Read on to learn more about different types of elbow pain and some tips on how to get pain free!
What can cause elbow pain?
Pain can often come from overuse injuries affecting muscles and tendons. Tennis (lateral epicondylitis) and Golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis) are common diagnosis you may have heard of but the biceps and triceps tendon can also suffer from overuse with gym workouts, holding a iPad for too long, etc… Don’t let the names Tennis and Golfers elbow fool you into thinking you must play these sports to be affected by this types of tendon issues. They can come on from many different activities including gardening, household chores and gym workouts to name a few.
Arthritis such as osteo, psoriatic and rheumatoid can lead to inflammation and pain as well as joint stiffness. Even in cases of mild arthritis this can lead to muscles tightening to protect the joint. This tightening of the muscles is a nervous system response and is often more the cause of pain than the arthritis itself.
The medial and lateral ligaments can be sprained or torn usually from trauma such as a fall or sporting injury. They can also occur in loaded overhead activities such as gymnastics hand stands. In this case there is often weakness of the muscles around the elbow and shoulder involved.
Bursa are situated all over our bodies to cushion and protect our tendons from rubbing and wearing out against the bones. Bursitis is when these bursa become inflamed and enlarged. The olecranon bursa sits at the back of the elbow and when inflamed results in a big egg shaped lump on the back of your elbow. Mild bursitis can be a cause of pain without the lump as well. This can result from overuse or even leaning on your elbows too much!
Nerve entrapment can cause elbow pain not only from the radial, median or ulnar nerve as they pass through the elbow region but also from higher up entrapment around the upper arm, shoulder or neck. Depending on the degree of nerve irritation you may experience sensations such as burning, tingling, pins and needles, achy pain, or sharp pain. You may also have weakened muscles and reduced reflexes.
Referred pain is very common to the point where in the treatment room this is one of the first things we rule out after we have assessed the elbow. The neck, shoulder area, upper arm, forearm and wrist can all refer pain into the elbow. This pain can present as an ache or sharper pain can be quite specific or broad. To help your elbow pain in this case, the underlying cause will need to be addressed rather than focusing on the elbow itself. This can be quite confusing and frustrating as the elbow pain can have you very convinced you have a elbow problem.
Bone fractures from a traumatic fall or blow to the elbow tend to result in a deep dull ache that is worse at night and on movement. Sometimes it is worth ruling out a fracture early on in your case history if you have had a fall or some kind of trauma to the elbow.
So you’ve ruled out anything serious with the elbow and are now looking for ways to improve range of movement and decrease pain. Often the elbow will over work when other structures that work together with the elbow such as the shoulder and the upper back are weak.
Tip 1 – Check your posture & technique
No amount of treatment will compensate for poor performance posture or technique. This doesn’t mean you have to sit bolt upright all the time however your muscles and nerves will work more efficiently during activities of work, daily living and leisure when we have good performance posture. In relation to the elbow this might mean making sure your desk is set up correctly for work or that you are using your core, good squat technique and strong shoulders when doing things like gardening.
Tip 2 – Stay stronger than your needs
As an example, if you love golf but can’t get out and play very often, you need to keep all your golfing muscles nice and strong to avoid injury. Staying stronger than your favourite sport, hobby or work activity will ensure the right muscles and nerves will be functioning at top capacity when you need them to.
Tip 3 – If it’s not improving, seek professional guidance
There’s plenty of info on the web these days of spots to trigger point, stretches to try as well as heat, ice and gels but the golden rule is if you’ve tried a few things and it’s not improving, have your problem properly assessed by a musculoskeletal expert such as a Clinical Myotherapist. The longer you leave certain conditions, the longer the road to recovery. Most things take 1-3 sessions to work out what’s going on and to build a successful remedy routine for you. That’s a lot cheaper than waiting and ending up needing braces and strong pain medication or MRIs and specialist appointments.
Want to have a chat? Click here to book a free 15 min session with a degree qualified Myotherapist or email us at [email protected]. You can also book a paid online or face to face consultation where we will assess, treat and teach you how to progress your elbow towards a pain free state! 🏋️ 🧘 💆