Elbow arthritis is not a common elbow injury, which is why it is often misunderstood and overlooked. When left untreated, it can dramatically affect your daily life. Like all joint problems, arthritis in the elbow requires early diagnosis and proper treatment. In this guide, we’ll discuss common causes of elbow arthritis and how to safely and effectively treat it.
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 forms a joint called the proximal radio-ulna, which helps rotate the radius, moving the hand and wrist.
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 elbow joint. With constant stress and continued damage to the cartilage, cracks or “fissures” begin to develop.
Types of Elbow Arthritis
Arthritis in elbow affects the joint and the surrounding tissues. The two types of elbow arthritis are elbow osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis elbow.
Osteoarthritis in the elbow is a painful, degenerative joint disease. 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, the joint swells, 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 direct trauma to the joint. The condition occurs when the cartilage surface of the elbow becomes worn or is seriously damaged.
Age: Arthritis can be the result of degeneration of the joint cartilage from old age.
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.
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
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 Treatment
The best treatment options for arthritis in the elbow depend largely on the stage of the disease, prior history, and overall fitness. Here are a few safe and effective treatment methods to consider.
For the early stages of elbow arthritis, the most common treatment is oral medications. Take scheduled doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce pain and inflammation. Many pain relief medications are available over the counter.
An ice pack designed specifically to alleviate neck pain will relieve the shoulder and neck pain associated with elbow arthritis. ( See Product)
Pain in the elbow may travel up to your shoulder and neck. Ice therapy is an affordable yet effective treatment for arthritis elbow pain and stiffness. Use a neck ice pack for about twenty minutes every couple hours to reduce pain and swelling.
An injection of steroids may be recommended to alleviate pain and lessen inflammation of the elbow. Injections of hyaluronic acid preparations (supraz or synvisc) may aid in joint cartilage repair and regeneration. Discuss the pros and cons with your doctor.
In severe cases of elbow arthritis, surgical intervention may be required. Your doctor may recommend joint replacement, a procedure that uses implants made from metal alloy and polyethylene (plastic) to replace the damaged cartilage and sections of bone in the joint. Joint replacement surgery restores mobility and function and relieves chronic joint pain. You’ll need to weigh the potential benefits against the risk and discomfort involved with surgical elbow treatment.
Compression sleeves reduce swelling and improve circulation to alleviate arthritis pain. (See Product)
In some cases, the intense pain from your elbow can radiate down your arm. The use of a compression arm sleeve can help relieve pain, protect the joint, and promote healing. Compression improves blood circulation and reduces swelling. But be sure to choose the correct size for your arm. A compression sleeve that’s too loose won’t do its job, and one that’s too tight can cause further damage.
Elbow supports provide moderate compression and stabilize and protect arthritic elbows. ( See Product)
While compression sleeves are designed mainly to reduce swelling, an elbow support combines compression with support to both relieve pain and protect your fragile elbow. The bamboo elbow support is specifically designed to ease the pain and discomfort caused by elbow arthritis. It soothes inflammation by improving circulation and provides support to improve your comfort and reduce the risk of injury.
An elbow strap applies targeted compression to the tendon to alleviate pain associated with elbow arthritis. ( See Product)
An elbow strap alleviates the symptoms of tennis elbow arthritis, golfer’s elbow, and other elbow injuries. Straps work by cushioning the affected area and relieving the pressure on the elbow. Look for a strap made of strong, breathable material for durability and comfort.
Below are examples of low-impact exercises for elbow arthritis that you can do at home. Stop if you feel pain, and always consult your doctor or therapist before beginning any new exercise program.
Step 1: Stand or sit with your affected elbow bent at a 90-degree angle.
Step 2: Hold a light weight, such as a can of soup, palm up.
Step 3: Slowly bend your wrist toward you.
Step 4: Return to the starting position.
Step 5: Perform 3 sets of 10.
Step 1: Stand tall, then place your affected arm straight in front of you with your palm facing down.
Step 2: Slowly bend your wrist down. Use your other hand to gently press the stretching hand toward your body.
Step 3: Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds.
Step 4: Slowly bend your wrist upward and use your opposite hand to pull your fingers back. Pause for 15 to 30 seconds.
Step 5: Perform at least 3 sets with each wrist.
Step 1: Sitting, slowly bend your affected elbow to a right angle with your palm facing the ceiling.
Step 2: Keeping your elbow at your side, slowly turn your wrist so your palm is facing the floor.
Step 3: Hold the position for 5 seconds, then release.
Step 4: Build up to 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Medial Rotation with Band
Step 1: Stand next to a closed door, and rest your injured arm against your stomach.
Step 2: Grab tubing or exercise band connected to a doorknob.
Step 3: Slowly rotate your arm inward, toward your waist. Keep your elbow at your side and bent at 90 degrees.
Step 4: Hold for 3 to 5 seconds, and then return to the starting position.
Step 5: Repeat for 20 repetitions.
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.
A patient with mild elbow arthritis may show improvement in just four to six weeks. Most patients respond well to conservative treatments, which include medication and a basic exercise program.
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.
Those with severe elbow arthritis may require joint replacement surgery. In these cases, the cartilage on the joint surfaces becomes a huge concern. Post-op recovery make include 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. Be patient and stay away from painful activities. Follow your doctor’s instructions, and you’ll be living pain-free in no time.
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