6 Potential Causes of Elbow Pain

6 Potential Causes of Elbow Pain

Elbow pain is a prevalent issue that affects individuals of all ages and occupations, often hindering daily activities and diminishing quality of life. This discomfort can arise from various underlying conditions, each with distinct causes and symptoms.

This article explores six potential causes of elbow pain, shedding light on their symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.

1. Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)

Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is a condition characterized by pain on the outer part of the elbow. It’s caused by overuse of the forearm muscles and tendons, leading to inflammation of the tendons that attach to the lateral epicondyle. Despite its name, tennis elbow is not exclusive to tennis players; it can affect anyone who performs repetitive arm and wrist movements. For example, carpenters, painters, and plumbers are particularly prone to this condition.

Symptoms include pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow, which could worsen with activities such as lifting, gripping, or twisting the forearm. In severe cases, even holding a cup of coffee can become challenging. Treatment typically involves rest, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and sometimes corticosteroid injections or even a tennis elbow surgical procedure if conservative treatments fail.

2. Golfer’s Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis)

Golfer’s elbow, or medial epicondylitis, is similar to tennis elbow but affects the inner side of the elbow. This condition results from overuse of the muscles and tendons that control wrist and finger movements. Activities that involve repetitive wrist flexion, such as golf, racket sports, and certain occupational tasks, can lead to golfer’s elbow. Construction workers and those who frequently lift heavy objects or use hand tools are also at risk.

Symptoms include pain and tenderness on the inner side of the elbow, which may radiate down the forearm. Stiffness, weakness in the hand and wrist, and a sensation of numbness or tingling in the fingers are common. Treatment options include rest, ice application, anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, and in some cases, corticosteroid injections or surgical intervention to repair damaged tendons.

3. Olecranon Bursitis

Olecranon bursitis, also known as student’s elbow, is the inflammation of the bursa located at the tip of the elbow. The bursa is a small sac filled with fluid that helps reduce friction between tissues. Causes of olecranon bursitis include trauma, prolonged pressure on the elbow, infection, and certain medical conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and gout. Individuals who spend a lot of time leaning on their elbows, such as students or office workers, are particularly susceptible.

Symptoms include swelling, pain, redness, and warmth over the back of the elbow. In some cases, the swelling can be significant, resembling a small egg under the skin. Treatment typically involves avoiding activities that exacerbate the condition, applying ice, using protective padding, and taking anti-inflammatory medications. If the bursitis is caused by an infection, antibiotics may be necessary, and in severe cases, the bursa may need to be drained or surgically removed.

4. Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve, which runs along the inner side of the elbow, becomes compressed or irritated. This condition is often caused by prolonged elbow flexion, direct pressure on the elbow, or repetitive activities that stretch the ulnar nerve. Occupations that require extensive use of the arms and hands, such as assembly line work, can increase the risk of developing this syndrome.

Symptoms include numbness and tingling in the ring and little fingers, pain in the inner elbow, and weakness in the hand, particularly when gripping objects. In advanced cases, muscle wasting in the hand can occur. Treatment includes activity modification, splinting the elbow, anti-inflammatory medications, and physical therapy. Severe cases may require surgical intervention to release pressure on the ulnar nerve.

5. Elbow Sprains and Strains

Elbow sprains involve the stretching or tearing of ligaments, while strains involve damage to muscles or tendons. These injuries can result from a sudden twist, fall, or direct blow. Sprains and strains are common in sports and activities that require repetitive arm movements, such as baseball, gymnastics, and weightlifting.

Symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising, and reduced range of motion. In severe cases, there may be instability in the elbow joint, making it difficult to perform daily tasks. Treatment typically involves rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE), along with physical therapy to restore strength and mobility. In severe cases, surgical repair may be necessary.

6. Arthritis

Arthritis, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, can cause elbow pain, too. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that results from wear and tear of the cartilage, leading to pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. This condition often affects older adults and those with a history of joint injuries. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation of the joint lining, and it can cause pain, swelling, and potential joint deformity. It can affect people of all ages and often presents with symmetrical joint involvement.

Both types of arthritis can significantly impact the elbow’s function and quality of life. Medications may help people manage pain and inflammation, and physical therapy can enhance joint function. Sometimes, surgical procedures such as joint replacement or arthroscopy is recommended.


If you’re dealing with elbow problems, your pain could stem from a variety of causes, each requiring a specific approach. Understanding the root cause is crucial, as this can guide your treatment. Taking proactive steps, such as modifying activities, following prescribed therapies, and adhering to medical advice, can significantly improve outcomes and enhance the long-term health of your elbow joint.

Written by Joshua Galyon

Joshua is a senior editor at Snooth, covering most anything of interest in the world of science and technology. Having written on everything from the science of space exploration to advances in gene therapy, he has a real soft spot for big, complicated pieces that make for excellent weekend reads.

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