The elbow may sometimes be disregarded and not thought of as an important joint, but, it is, and it helps us maintain our independence.
The elbow is made up of bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons that work together to make our arms extend and flex as needed when doing various tasks. According to physical therapist Paige Norby of the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, “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.”
Elbow pain can be a great inconvenience. It 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.
What causes elbow pain?
The most common cause of elbow pain is inflammation of one or both of the elbow’s two tendons. This condition, called tendinitis, 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 radiates 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, or inflammation of the fluid-filled joint cushions called bursae.
Diagnosis and treatment of an injured elbow
If you are unable to extend your arm completely straight after an injury, Norby advises that you contact your doctor to check for a possible fracture. You’ll likely undergo some imaging tests—an MRI or X-ray—and also a physical exam.
If your elbow is just sore, you should consider these fixes before contacting your doctor for help:
Stop overuse of the muscle group you suspect is responsible for your elbow pain. “For example,” says Norby, “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 can bring blood flow and nutrients to the elbow, which can encourage healing. To do this, protect your skin with a thin cloth and then place a heating pad or hot pack around your elbow.
“Stretching out the muscles of the forearm can offer some relief,” says Norby. “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.”
Constantly wearing a brace keeps the muscles still, giving 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.
Exercises you can perform to reduce or prevent elbow pain
Depending on the cause of your elbow pain, exercise may help you recover and prevent the condition from recurring. Common elbow conditions that can be prevented with regular exercise include tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow and olecranon bursitis.
Exercises and stretches may:
- Relieve pain.
- Increase range of motion.
- Reduce inflammation.
- Strengthen muscles around the joint to help you avoid future injury.
Research supports the following types of exercises as helping to reduce pain and improve outcomes for people with tennis elbow:
Eccentric training is repetitively doing eccentric muscle contractions. Eccentric contraction refers to any movement that lengthens a muscle at the same time it is being contracted. Muscles lengthen under tension, and doing these exercises can help reduce pain in people with tennis elbow. Wrist extensor strengthening, a specific type of eccentric exercise, may help lessen tennis elbow pain.
In isometric exercises, muscles tense up and contract without visibly moving. Isometric wrist extension exercises can help in reducing tennis elbow pain. However, this exercise alone may not otherwise improve the condition.
Static stretching exercises
For most effective treatment and pain relief, eccentric exercises should be combined with static stretching exercises.
Multiple studies have indicated that aquatic exercises and strength training may be effective for reducing osteoarthritis pain in the knees and hips. However, more research is needed on exercises to reduce pain from elbow osteoarthritis and other elbow disorders.
Exercise safety when exercising
It’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about what types and level of exercise will work best for you before starting any exercise program.
Once you begin, keep the following tips in mind:
- Be gentle and stop if you feel sharp pain.
- Avoid overstretching or exercising too much when recovering from an injury.
- Talk to your healthcare provider if your pain doesn’t improve or gets worse, or if there’s increased swelling or redness around your elbow.
Exercise often plays an essential role in recovering from an elbow disorder.
Physical therapy for elbow pain prevention
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 that they have time to repair and replenish their energy storage. You can stretch them daily.
Got a question or anything I can help with? My name is Steve Stretton, and I’m the owner and manager at Gelpacks.com. You can drop me a line here. Good luck!