Article featured on Harvard Health Publishing
The elbow is a funny joint. It is home to your funny bone—your ulnar nerve—which hurts if it’s hit a certain way. And the elbow is often overlooked as an important joint to help us maintain our independence. Many older adults may not think much about the elbow, because it’s not a weight-bearing joint and because it doesn’t often develop arthritis or require joint replacement in the older adult population. But elbow pain can keep you from getting dressed, cooking dinner, and anything else that requires the use of your arm. Taking care of this joint helps ensure that you can care for yourself.
Causes of elbow pain
The elbow is made up of bones, muscles, ligaments (which connect bones), and tendons (which connect muscles to bone). The most common cause of elbow pain is inflammation of one or both of the elbow’s two tendons. This is called tendinitis, and it is often the result of overuse. “Repetitive movements from everyday work, household chores, golf, or tennis can affect the muscles above and below the elbow and cause tendinitis,” says Norby. Tendinitis pain travels from the elbow to the upper arm or to the lower arm.
Other causes of elbow pain are fractures from falling onto an outstretched arm; arthritis; sprains, which stretch or tear elbow ligaments; and bursitis, inflammation of the fluid-filled joint cushions called bursae.
Diagnosis and fixes
If you are unable to make your arm completely straight after an injury, Contact your doctor to check for a possible fracture. You’ll likely undergo an x-ray.
If your elbow is just sore, you should consider these fixes before contacting your doctor for help.
- Rest. Stop overuse of the muscle group you suspect is behind your elbow pain. For example, if you have a hobby or project that requires repetitive wrist flexing or extending, you may be overusing the muscles and tendons of the forearm that connect to the elbow.
- Heat therapy. Heat can bring blood flow and nutrients to the elbow, which can encourage healing. Protect your skin with a thin cloth, then place a heating pad or hot pack around your elbow.
- Stretching. Stretching out the muscles of the forearm can offer some relief. Simply straighten your elbow out with the palm of your hand facing the floor, and gently pull your fingers toward the underside of your wrist. You should feel a stretch along the back of your forearm. Hold it for 30 seconds. Then flip your forearm over, with your palm facing the ceiling, and push your fingers toward the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.
- Bracing. Constantly wearing a brace keeps the muscles still, allowing them time to heal. You can buy various arm braces at most drugstores. Look for one that immobilizes the muscles that may be causing your pain, such as a wrist or forearm brace if you often flex your wrist.
Once your elbow has healed, talk to your doctor about physical therapy to strengthen the muscles surrounding the joint. You’ll likely perform exercises such as biceps curls that focus on the muscles in your upper arm. Strengthen your muscles every other day, so they have time to repair and replenish energy stores. You can stretch them daily.
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