How to treat elbow arthritis: Causes, symptoms, exercises, and prevention

elbow arthritisElbow arthritis is a painful condition that may be caused by overuse, trauma, or simply just getting older. Much like other joints of the body, the elbow joint is lined with cartilage that acts to provide support, allows for flexibility of movement, and help to protect the end of the joint from constant friction. However, when the cartilage surface of the elbow becomes worn out or damage it can lead to elbow arthritis.

What are the causes and risk factors of elbow arthritis?

The elbow acts as a hinge that allows for the extension and flexion of the forearm. Despite the fact that we use our forearms most every day, the elbow is a rare source of arthritic pain as weight bearing joints such as the knee are more likely sources. However, elbow arthritis cases may experience pain not only when they bend their elbow but also when they straighten it. The follow are some of the most common causes of elbow arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis


A chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just the joints and can develop into a painful elbow bone. It causes the joints to become inflamed, leading to pain and swelling, stiffness and fatigue. Rheumatoid arthritis elbow pain can cause limited movement and decreased the quality of life. In some people, the condition can also damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels. It is considered an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks its own body’s tissues. This autoimmune attack affects the lining of the joints, causing painful swelling and eventual bone erosion and joint deformity.

Related: Benefits of using essential oils for rheumatoid arthritis pain relief


A degeneration of the cartilage that usually provides cushioning between the bones of the joints. Cartilage between the knee joint is required to cushion forceful impacts that occur on a regular basis. Without this protection at weight-bearing joints, both sets of bones will continually rub against each other causing pain in the affected joint, as seen in arthritis of the elbow.

Psoriatic arthritis

A chronic autoimmune condition resulting in increased inflammation in the body that gets worse over time but those affected may have symptom-free periods on occasion. The symptoms of this condition often resemble that of rheumatoid arthritis, as both diseases cause the joints to become, painful, swollen, and warm to the touch. However, psoriatic arthritis is more likely to cause, swollen fingers and toes, foot pain, and lower back pain, and of course has the typical skin abnormalities seen with general psoriasis.


A fracture of the elbow joint can damage the cartilage within it. Trauma could be from sports, a vehicle accident, or even simply due to a fall injury. Once the damage to the cartilage has been done, it changes the mechanics of the joint and makes wear and tear occur much more quickly.

Elbow arthritis can affect people of all ages, but there exist particular risk factors that may increase its development.

  • Being female (post-menopausal)
  • Active lifestyle
  • Genetics
  • Advanced age

What does arthritis in elbow feel like? The symptoms

Depending on the cause of elbow arthritis, one person may differ from another’s in terms of elbow arthritis symptoms. However, there is some commonality found between all presentations. The following are some of the most commonly seen arthritis in elbow symptoms.

  • Pain: Generally, occurs when performing any sort movement with the affected joint, but can differ depending on the cause of elbow arthritis. For example, rheumatoid arthritis presents as pain that can get worse as you rotate the forearm. Those with osteoarthritis may worsen pain when you extend your arm.
  • Swelling: A common presentation with rheumatoid arthritis characterized by fluid accumulation caused by inflammation.
  • Instability: The joint often gives way, making it difficult to perform daily tasks
  • Lack of full movement: unable to extend or flex the elbow
  • Locking: The loss of fluid movement of the elbow joint
  • Stiffness: a lack of movement of the joint. This is commonly seen after injury and due to pain and swelling.

How to diagnose elbow arthritis?

When seeing your doctor about arthritis in elbow symptoms they will first get a complete history of then you started to show symptoms and what brought on its onset. They will also ask if you have any pre-existing conditions which may be an underlying cause for your arthritis elbow pain. Next, your doctor will perform a physical exam to see if there is any tenderness and swelling, also if your range of movement is affected.
Once these preliminary measures are done, diagnostic testing can be carried out. These may include the use of imagining studies such as:

  • X-rays
  • Computer tomography (CT)
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Treatment for elbow arthritis

Non-surgical treatment

Initial Treatment

This is commonly known as conservative management and utilizes treatments that can be easily done by the person with joint pain. The use of heat via heating pads or a hot shower can be helpful for loosening joint and relaxing stiff muscles. Ice is useful for treatment for elbow arthritis flare-ups or swelling. In addition to heat and ice therapy, the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be a useful add-on for further reducing inflammation and swelling. Common NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and several others that are prescription strength. It is important to follow the doctor’s directions when using these drugs as they also may many side effects.

Splints and Braces

Common made of neoprene and help to reduce swelling and provide elbow support. Depending on your particular needs and level of disability, your doctor may recommend a custom resting splint for your elbow which can be worn at night and during activities.

Cortisone injections

Generally considered the last resort, if none of the above-mentioned therapies have failed or are no longer effective. Cortisone injections can give short-term pain relief possibly lasting a couple months helping to reduce swelling and inflammation of the joint. Relief from cortisone injections are seen as only a temporary measure as eventually arthritis in the joint will continue to progress.

Cut back on activity

Avoiding certain activities or sports is often the advice given by your doctor as being an easy way relieve stress on the joint. They will also promote rest of the joint instead of constant exertion

Surgical treatment

Elbow arthroscopy

Elbow arthroscopy is performed in early cases of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis this procedure can help provide pain relief and improved range of motion. It is done by making several small incisions so the surgeon can remove loose bodies from within the elbow joint, remove the inflamed synovium, shave off bone spurs, as well as remove scar tissue. This treatment can be very effective in the treatment of catching and clicking from loss bodies and considered minimally invasive with quicker recovery times.

Synovectomy and removal of osteophytes

Synovectomy and removal of osteophytes is performed in less advanced cases of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, this surgery involves opening the joint to remove diseased and inflamed synovium; a specialized connective tissue membrane. Bone spurs or osteophytes can also be removed during this operation. Patients often have significant pain relief and increased the range of motion afterward.

Elbow arthrodesis (fusion)

Elbow arthrodesis involves the removal of diseased cartilage and the fusion of bones in the affected joint to provide stability and reduced pain. This procedure is sometimes the only option for your patients with high demand jobs who have severe arthritis in the elbow. Patients who receive this procedure lose the ability to bend at the elbow and compensate the movement of their shoulder.

Elbow arthroplasty (replacement)

Elbow arthroplasty involves the removal of diseased cartilage from the elbow joint for the implantation of an artificial joint. The new joint is metal and is cemented to your humerus and ulna bones with a plastic bearing. This option is usually reserved for low demand patients over the age of 70 or in those with advanced stages of rheumatoid arthritis.

Benefits of physical therapy for elbow arthritis

Elbow arthritis treatment will often include physical therapy and aims to help you move better and relived pain. It can also help restore physical function and your fitness level. Physical therapy is a great addition to any recovery treatment and helps to make daily tasks and activities easier. Physical therapy for elbow arthritis often addresses the following issues


Commonly done with the use of heat to increase circulation in the area promoting movement. Some ways physical therapist achieves this is via electric heating pads, paraffin, or warm water soaks. The use of dry rice in long sock microwaved and then placed on the affected joint.


Ice is often the treatment of choice for addressing swelling as you can get ice packs that conform to various shapes making getting one that wraps around the unique contours of your elbow much easier. Most people, however, will find that a frozen bag of peas is satisfactory. An elastic compression sleeve, called a Tubigrip can also be effective for reducing pain and swelling.

Joint protection

This knowledge is important for prolonging the life of your joints. It often involves modifying the way an activity is performed or using an adaptive piece of equipment. The following principals can help protect not only your elbow joint but any joint of the body

  • Listen to your pain: when there is damage to your joint pain is often a sign of your body to stop doing that particular action. This may prompt you to change positions or change a particular tool
  • Use the largest joint available for the task: Larger joints are known to have more surface area to distribute pressure and handle increased loads. Examples of this may be, to use the side of your body to open a door instead of an extended arm or carry bags on your shoulder instead of in your hands.
  • Avoid staying in one position for extended periods of time: This can increase stiffness and pain. it is recommended to try alternating rest with activity. It important to keep in consideration that just as too much activity can cause pain, so can too much rest.

Elbow arthritis exercises

Elbow arthritis exercise #1

Putting your forearm on a table with your wrist and palm facing down, hold a canned food for weight in your hand. Now bend your wrist downwards and bring it up past parallel to the floor. It is recommended to perform 3 sets of 15 while taking 45-second breaks in between

Elbow arthritis Exercise #2

Placing your wrist and arm on the edge of a table with palms facing upward, hold a canned food for within your hand, letting your wrist fall down towards the floor. Now bring it back up past parallel to the flow. Perform this exercise in 3 set of 15 repetitions

Hand Extension

A great exercise for improving arthritis symptoms. It can be done by simply standing and stretching your hands forward, then turning the palms in a way so that your fingers are pointing to the sky and you look directly at your palms. Now make a fist by closing all your fingers into a fist and then open them as wide as possible, points all your fingers apart. Do this exercise at least 10 times with both hands.

Chest Press

Choosing a weight that is about 15 pounds or less, hold them at shoulder level. Now press the weight out towards your front and then back to starting position. Repeat 10 times.

Arms Stretching in a Sitting Position

Using a yoga mat, sit comfortably stretching your arms over your head, then interlock the fingers with your palms facing forwards. Now take a deep breath, holding it for a couple of seconds, then exhale. Lower your arms until they come back to the level of the shoulders and repeat.

Arm Stretch for Relief in the Standing Position

Lift up your right arm, bend the elbow and put your palm on your upper back. Now try to bring the back side of the left hand towards the back, attempting to grasp the fingers of both hands firmly. How this position for about 30 seconds. If you are unable to connect both hands, using a towel can also be useful for attempting the stretch.

Myth about Elbow Arthritis Yoga Exercises

While it is true that yoga can put you in many different exercise positions, many people believe that it may further damage the arthritic joints. However, yoga is something recommended by doctors for improving overall health and strengthening the joints. Yoga is known for providing relief from pain and stiffness.

Prevention of elbow arthritis

While there may not be much that can be done to avoid accidental injury, keeping in mind the potential ways to keep the elbow safe will go a long way to help preserve its function. also by increasing muscle strength, you help to avoid injury, as well as by staying fit, leading a healthy lifestyle, and properly managing any long-term conditions such as diabetes.



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Author Bio

Mohan Garikiparithi got his degree in medicine from Osmania University (University of Health Sciences). He practiced clinical medicine for over a decade before he shifted his focus to the field of health communications. During his active practice he served as the head of the Dept. of Microbiology in a diagnostic centre in India. On a three-year communications program in Germany, Mohan developed a keen interest in German Medicine (Homoeopathy), and other alternative systems of medicine. He now advocates treating different medical conditions without the use of traditional drugs. An ardent squash player, Mohan believes in the importance of fitness and wellness.


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