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Elbow Arthritis Overview

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT June 04, 2020 0 Comments

elbow arthritis

Arthritis in the elbow is not a common condition, which is why it is often misunderstood and overlooked. When left unmanaged, it can dramatically affect your daily life as it progresses. Like all joint problems, arthritis in the elbow does better with early diagnosis and proper treatment. In this guide, we’ll discuss common causes of elbow arthritis and how to safely and effectively treat it.

What is Elbow Arthritis?

The elbow is a hinged synovial joint between the forearm and the upper arm. The widest bony points of the upper arm are known as the medial and lateral epicondyles, which are just above the elbow joint. The forearm consists of two bones: the radius and ulna. Both bones connect to the upper arm or humerus to form the two primary elbow joints. Additionally, the two forearm bones connect at the very bottom of the elbow which allows wrist rotation, otherwise known as pronation and supination.

When any of the complicated joint surfaces of the elbow become damaged by overuse, illness, or trauma, there is a risk of developing arthritis in the elbow joint. With constant stress and continued damage to the cartilage, wearing, cracks or even “fissures” can begin to develop over time.

Types of Elbow Arthritis

Arthritis in the elbow affects the joint and the surrounding tissues. There are two types of elbow arthritis: elbow osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis elbow.

  • Elbow Osteoarthritis

    Osteoarthritis in the elbow is a degenerative joint disease that often results in pain or stiffness with normal activities. It typically develops after repeated injury or overuse. Eventually, this repeated impact or injury thins the cartilage that cushions the joint. As a result, the bones rub each other (if at end stage), the joint may swell, and joint flexibility is reduced.

  • Elbow Rheumatoid Arthritis

    Rheumatoid arthritis in elbow is an autoimmune inflammatory disease in which the body releases a large number of enzymes, which attack healthy tissues. They destroy the linings of joints, or synovia. The joint space narrows as the joint lining swells. This disease slowly destroys the bones and soft tissues. In some cases, people with elbow rheumatoid arthritis experience systemic symptoms, such as fever and fatigue.

Elbow Arthritis Causes

The pain and discomfort associated with elbow arthritis indicates damage or stress to the joint. But root causes vary. How can you get arthritis in your elbow? Underlying causes of elbow arthritis include:

  • Injury or Trauma

    One of the most common causes of elbow arthritis is initiated direct trauma to the joint. The condition becomes evident in the future when the cartilage surface of the elbow becomes worn or is seriously damaged due to changed movement mechanics from the original injury.

  • Age

    Arthritis can be the result of degeneration of the joint cartilage from aging. With each decade of life, our connective tissue becomes more susceptible to wear and loses extensibility. This increases the overall risk of developing arthritis.

  • Post-Traumatic Arthritis

    A previous dislocation or fracture of the elbow can cause a cartilage injury, which leads to progressive deterioration of the joint. In complex injuries, there are usually cartilage deformities, which result in rapid wear of the joint and abnormal mechanics.

  • Inflammatory Diseases

    More specifically for rheumatoid arthritis, dealing with comorbidities that result in increased inflammation in the body (like diabetes, heart disease, or other autoimmune diseases) can trigger or aggravate symptoms of arthritis throughout the body.

Elbow Arthritis Symptoms

Regardless of the cause of your arthritis in elbow, pain is the most common and persistent symptom. But you may also notice other signs. Some symptoms of arthritis in the elbow may be more intense or frequent than others.

  • Reduced range of motion
  • Stiffness that only improves when the joint is moved
  • Weakness of the elbow
  • Crunching, cracking, or joint noises when moving the elbow
  • Deformity or increased size of the joint
  • Swelling around the joint
  • Catching or locking of the elbow joint
  • Joint instability

Elbow Arthritis Diagnosis

An accurate diagnosis for elbow arthritis is the key to finding the right treatment program for your injury. Your doctor will begin by assessing your medical history and symptoms of arthritis elbow. Your elbows will be checked for tenderness. A doctor can typically diagnose elbow arthritis based on symptoms, but imaging tests may be required. X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, or bone scans can confirm the signs of arthritis in your elbow.

Elbow Arthritis Recovery Time

Your recovery time for elbow arthritis will depend on your age and the severity of the weakness, motion loss, and joint degeneration.

  • Mild

    A patient with mild elbow arthritis may show improvement in just four to six weeks. Most patients respond well to conservative treatments, which include extensive education, medication and a basic exercise program.

  • Moderate

    Patients suffering from moderate elbow arthritis typically experience greater pain, weakness, and loss of motion. In most cases, recovery takes six to nine weeks. Recovery emphasizes the restoration of elbow strength, range, and function. A long term treatment program will then need to be initiated after the recovery process for maintenance and to minimize risk of further progression.

  • Severe

    A conservative approach should always be taken first. The focus is on restoring function and managing pain with education, pain modalities, and a home exercise program. However, those with severe elbow arthritis may require joint replacement surgery if quality of life is disrupted. In these cases, the cartilage on the joint surfaces becomes a huge concern. Post-op recovery includes three to four months of rehabilitation and intensive physical therapy. Improvements are typically noticed a year after the procedure.

Follow-Up Care for Elbow Arthritis

In treating elbow arthritis, the goal is to maximize joint function and minimize pain. Once the stiffness and pain are reduced, expect your elbow’s strength and motion to improve. Always return to activities gradually and make sure you are keeping good form to minimize further cartilage breakdown.  Be patient and stay away from painful activities. Follow your doctor’s and physical therapist’s instructions, and you’ll be living pain-free and better managing your arthritis symptoms in no time.




Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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