Your elbow is one of the most complex joints in your body. It is a system of ligaments, cartilage, bone, muscle, fluid, and tendons all working together to keep your elbow bending and twisting.
When one of these components becomes damaged or diseased, it can lead to a number of elbow conditions.
Common Elbow Conditions
While most elbow pain is the result of simple strains and clears up within a few days, extreme or prolonged pain is usually the sign of a more serious elbow condition.
Here at Orthopedic Physicians Associates (OPA), our doctors have decades of experience treating elbow conditions and getting Seattle residents swinging again.
Some of the more common elbow conditions that we see include:
There is a variety of arthritis which can appear in your elbow. The two main kinds being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and of these, rheumatoid arthritis is the most frequently occurring elbow arthritis.
- Rheumatoid arthritis causes your immune system to attack healthy tissue in your joints, causing swelling.
- Osteoarthritis occurs as a result of the cartilage in your elbow breaking down. A reduction in cartilage can cause the bones in your elbow to grind together, which is what causes this condition’s signature stiffness and pain.
Baseball and Other Sports Injuries
Baseball pitchers and other athletes who throw overhand repeatedly are at risk of developing an overuse injury in their elbow. An overuse injury occurs when someone repeats the same action over and over.
For athletes that throw, elbow problems often develop on the inside of the elbow, because immense force is focused there when you throw a ball.
Baseball injuries within the elbow include:
- Flexor Tendinitis
- Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) injury
- Valgus Extension Overload (VEO)
- Olecranon Stress Fracture
- Ulnar Neuritis
Distal Bicep Tendon Tear or Rupture
The bicep is the dominant muscle in your arm. While it is based on the upper part of your arm, your bicep is also attached to your forearm via a tendon that passes over the elbow.
A distal bicep tendon tear or rupture occurs when the tendon that is attached to your forearm is torn from the bone.
This condition is almost always due to a sudden injury to the elbow. For example, a tear can happen if you lift an object that is too heavy, or as a result of the elbow being suddenly bent straight while the bicep tendon is flexed.
Symptoms of a distal bicep tendon tear or rupture include:
- A sudden popping sound in the elbow
- Immediate elbow pain after an injury
- Difficulty bending or twisting the elbow
- Bruising and swelling around the elbow
A fracture happens when one of your three arm bones breaks at the elbow — either one of the two forearm bones (ulna and radius) or your upper arm bone (humerus). As with most breaks, fractures usually occur during a trauma event, like a car accident, fall, or contact sport.
An elbow fracture requires quick evaluation and treatment from an orthopedic professional. If left untreated, fractures can result in permanent damage to the tissue and bones in your elbow.
Another kind of elbow fracture is a stress fracture. Stress fractures are tiny cracks in your bones that develop from overuse. So while regular fractures occur due to sudden injury, stress fractures slowly happen over time.
Growth Plate Injuries
Growth plates are the area of tissue on each end of a child’s long bones. Each long bone has two growth plates and these are what the bone uses to grow.
Growth plate injuries usually involve someone overusing their elbow at a young age — youth sports like tennis, baseball, and golf, for example. If a child overuses their elbow or impacts their elbow it can cause a growth plate injury.
While growth plate injuries should always be taken seriously, for children between the ages of 14 and 17, proper treatment of a damaged growth plate is especially crucial. If left untreated, a growth plate injury can result in long-term complications and skeletal growth problems.
Loose bodies are tiny pieces of cartilage or bone that have broken off inside an elbow. These loose fragments drift around inside the joint and can get caught in the elbow’s moving parts.
Symptoms of loose bodies include:
- Feeling like your elbow is locked or stuck
- Feeling a “catching” sensation when you bend your elbow
- Awareness that there is a fragment moving inside the elbow
- Elbow pain and stiffness
Tendinitis refers to damage caused to the tendons in your elbow when they are overused. Golfers elbow and tennis elbow are both forms of tendinitis.
While the names make these sound like sports-exclusive injuries, the reality is that tendinitis can afflict anyone who makes repetitive movements with their elbow. The only major distinction between these two kinds of tendinitis is that golfers elbow affects the inside of the elbow, while tennis elbow affects the outside.
Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL)
A UCL is a repetitive stress injury that occurs when the ligaments holding the bones in your elbow together are torn. This results in pain, an inability to work, and a sense of looseness or instability in the elbow.
Ulnar Nerve Entrapment
The ulnar nerve is a long nerve that runs from your neck, all the way down to your hand. Ulnar nerve entrapment happens when this nerve becomes compressed or irritated as it passes through your elbow. This creates a condition called “cubital tunnel syndrome.”
Seattle Orthopedic Treatments for Elbow Pain
Here at Orthopedic Physicians Associates, we specialize in a wide range of elbow treatments and therapies. Whether you are struggling with long-term elbow diseases, like arthritis, or have simply injured your elbow in an accident, we have the expertise and technology necessary to help you recover.
Our roster of industry-leading elbow treatments include:
Arthroscopic surgery is a minimally invasive treatment that uses fiberoptics, miniaturized surgical tools, and a tiny camera to repair an injured elbow joint.
Elbow arthroscopy is also used to diagnose injuries. If the source of your pain and stiffness can’t be identified from the outside, your doctor may recommend arthroscopic surgery to identify the cause of your condition.
Fractures are treated in a variety of ways depending on the severity and location of the fracture. Immediate treatment may include:
- Applying ice to the elbow to reduce swelling
- Taking pain medication
- Applying a splint to the elbow
If the bones are not out of place, then it is possible for the fracture to heal itself with the help of a splint and gentle physical therapy. But, if the bones have moved out of place (called a displaced fracture) surgery will probably be necessary to repair the fracture.
For some conditions, pain-relieving or recovery-stimulating injections may be recommended by your doctor. Two of the injections we offer are cortisone and PRP.
- Cortisone shots can relieve pain and inflammation in the elbow. Conditions treated by cortisone include arthritis, bursitis, and tendinitis.
- Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injections are a newer treatment that is used to accelerate the healing process in tendon injuries, like distal bicep tendon tears and tennis elbow.
Loose Body Removal
If a loose bone or cartilage fragment is causing mechanical problems in the elbow (catching, locking, clicking, etc.) your doctor will probably suggest immediate surgery.
Arthroscopic surgery is the most common method of removing loose bodies in the elbow. During arthroscopic surgery, the doctor will make small portals in the elbow, allowing tiny surgical tools and cameras to enter the elbow joint. With help from the cameras, the doctor will be able to grasp the loose bodies and remove them through the portals.
Non-Operative and Conservative Treatment
If a patient’s elbow condition does not require surgery, the doctors here at Orthopedic Physicians Associates will guide them through non-operative and conservative treatment options. This includes physical therapy, pain medication, and applying a splint and sling to the elbow.
Ulnar Nerve Release or Transposition
As the ulnar nerve runs down from your neck to your hand, it is possible for it to become pinched by the bony bump on the inner side of your elbow (called the medial epicondyle). This creates a condition known as cubital tunnel syndrome, which can be treated with ulnar nerve release or transportation.
Ulnar nerve transportation is a surgery that moves the ulnar nerve out from behind the medial epicondyle and relocates to the front of the elbow joint so that it won’t be compressed anymore.
What to Do if You Have an Elbow Injury
While most elbow pain can improve by using simple home treatments (like rest, ice, and compression), the conditions listed above require a doctor’s attention and treatment.
Not sure what to do with your elbow pain? Here are some tips to help you determine who to call and when:
Get Immediate Emergency Care if:
- A deformity has appeared in your elbow.
- You have a bone protruding from your elbow.
Call Your Doctor as Soon as Possible if:
- You have trouble using your elbow and can’t move it normally without it catching or feeling pain.
- You are experiencing severe swelling, bruising, and pain in and around your elbow joint.
Schedule a Clinic Visit with OPA Within the Next Few Weeks if:
- There is increasing swelling, pain, or redness in or around your elbow
- Your elbow pain doesn’t improve with home care
- You have persistent pain even when you’re not using your elbow
To learn more about elbow pain, or to schedule an appointment with our elbow specialists, contact OPA today.