What Could Be Causing Your Elbow Pain?

Photo of a PT helping elderly man with elbow pain.
Your physical therapist can help determine the cause of your elbow pain. Tetra Images-Vstock/Getty Images

If you have elbow pain, then you understand how it can limit your ability to use your entire arm or wrist properly.  You may benefit from a course of physical therapy to help manage your pain and improve the functional mobility of your arm.

Before prescribing therapeutic modalities or elbow exercises to treat your pain, your physical therapist will perform and initial evaluation and assessment to determine what may be causing your symptoms.

  Once a thorough assessment is completed, you and your physical therapist can get to work treating your elbow pain.

Common Diagnoses Related to the Elbow

When elbow pain strikes, it is important that you get an accurate diagnosis for your condition.  This can help guide your treatment and ensure that you do the correct treatment for your elbow pain.  A visit to your doctor is always a good idea whenever pain strikes that limits your normal function and activity.

Your elbow is a complex joint consisting of different bones, muscles, and ligaments.  There are many different conditions that may be causing your elbow pain.  Some common elbow problems may include:

  • Tennis elbow: Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is inflammation and pain in the common extensor tendons of the wrist.  These tendons originate in the elbow at the end of your humerus bone.  Repetitive strain and overuse commonly irritate these tendons, causing the pain and limited mobility in your elbow, wrist, and upper extremity.
  • Olecranon bursitis:  Olecranon bursitis occurs when the bursa that cushions your elbow becomes irritated and inflamed.  The bursa becomes extremely sensitive to pressure on the end of your elbow bone (the olecranon process).
  • Ulnar nerve entrapment: your ulnar nerve travels from your spinal cord in your neck to your hand.  The nerve crosses your elbow joint close to the surface of your skin.  (If you have ever banged your "funny bone," you have actually irritated your ulnar nerve.  Sometimes the ligament that covers the nerve becomes thickened due to overuse or repetitive strain.  When this happens, your ulnar nerve becomes entrapped and causes elbow pain or tingling in your pinky finger and hand.
  • Elbow arthritis: As you age, your joint are placed under significant stress, and this stress may cause degenerative changes within your elbow joint.  Although it is rare, elbow arthritis may occur and cause elbow pain and loss of mobility in your arm.
  • Elbow fracture: A fall onto your elbow or trauma to your elbow may cause the joint to break.  This may result in significant elbow pain and limited mobility in your arm and elbow joint. 
  • Pronator or supinator muscle strain: Repetitive stress and strain in your forearm muscles may cause the pronator or supinator muscles to become irritated.  Those muscles are responsible for helping your forearm and wrist turn over, as when you are pouring a pitcher of water.  Overuse of those muscles can cause forearm and elbow pain and may limit upper extremity function.
  • Golfer's elbow: Golfer's elbow, or medial epicondylitis, is similar to tennis elbow, only it occurs on the opposite side of your elbow in the common flexor tendons.  Repetitive stress and strain or overuse of the muscles that flex your wrist can cause pain and inflammation in the tendons that originate on the medial side of your elbow.
  • Elbow ligament sprain: There are ligaments that support your elbow joints, and these ligaments resist forces in specific directions to help maintain elbow joint congruity.  If you experience a significant trauma or stress to your elbow, you may injure one of the elbow ligaments, and this may be a cause of your elbow joint pain.
  • Biceps tendon strain or rupture: Your biceps muscle courses from the front of your shoulder and down to your elbow joint.  The muscle is responsible for turning your forearm so your palm faces up, and it helps to bend your elbow joint.  Repetitive stress and strain to this muscle may cause elbow pain, and a forceful blow or trauma to your arm may cause the tendon to tear or rupture.  When this happens, you will likely experience significant elbow pain and swelling and limited mobility in your arm or elbow.

If you have elbow pain, visit your doctor for a diagnosis, or check in with your physical therapist for an evaluation of your condition.  Your PT can help determine the cause of your pain and get you back to your normal function and activity quickly and safely.

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