Advice and information for patients
The elbow joint is a hinge joint, connecting the upper arm to the forearm. It is an important joint, if only because we need to it get food and drink from our hands to our mouths! The elbow has strong ligaments on either side of the joint. Bending our elbow is termed as flexion; straightening our elbow is referred to as extension.
Elbow pain can often result from a simple strain or sprain. Strains are injuries to muscles or tendons and sprains are injuries to ligaments. Such soft tissue injuries may be caused by a specific injury (eg falling onto an outstretched hand) or may gradually build up over time. The elbow can sometimes become painful during activities such as gripping with the hand, and lifting a kettle, for example, as well as bending and straightening the elbow. The most common soft tissue problems of the elbow are tennis elbow and golfers elbow. Despite their names, often these conditions have nothing to do with particular sports. Often they are the result of overuse or repetitive strain. They are conditions of the tendons and are best managed with exercises to stretch and strengthen the tendon up again.
How can I help myself to get better?
Minor injuries, such as mild sprains and strains, can often be initially treated at home using a protection, rest, ice regime for the first two or three days after onset:
- Protection – protect the affected area from further injury; for example, avoid the painful activities that may have caused the injury if this is easily traced. However do not stop moving altogether as this will likely cause your shoulder to stiffen up.
- Rest – rest the elbow for two or three days only. Resting the arm for a short time may help any inflammation or discomfort to settle. However resting beyond two to three days may lead to the surrounding muscles becoming weaker which will not be helpful in the longer term.
- Ice – should you notice any swelling or tenderness around the joint, apply an ice pack to the affected area for about 15 minutes every two to three hours. This may help to reduce the swelling and give some pain relief. A bag of frozen peas, or similar, will work equally as well.
- NB please be sure to wrap the ice pack / frozen peas in a moist towel or similar to avoid direct contact with the skin.
Contrary to many people’s beliefs, it is good to stay active when you have pain in your soft tissues or joints. Try to reduce the amount of activity (rather than stopping it altogether) that may be exacerbating your symptoms for a short period, until the pain settles. You should then aim to slowly work back up to your previous activity level. If exercising does not affect your symptoms or improves them, try to stay as active as possible.
- Some basic exercises can be useful in easing your elbow pain and to help it move better. These simple elbow exercises from ARC UK may be a useful starting point.
- Pain relief through medication may be useful – however it is essential that prior to using pain-relieving medication that you check with either your GP or pharmacist that you are OK to use them - even if they are “over-the-counter” type medications such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or creams that you can buy at the chemist.
When should I see my doctor or physiotherapist?
Many episodes of elbow pain get better or improve on its own, or with the self-management approaches as discussed above.
However you should seek medical advice for the following:
- After a sudden traumatic injury such as a fall onto a hard surface, a high impact injury or a sudden twisting or wrenching injury.
- If the pain is severe or the elbow is hot, red or very swollen
- If you have tingling or numbness down the arm
- If you develop acute elbow pain at the same time as feeling unwell or if you develop a fever similarly to the onset of your elbow pain, it is possible you may have developed and infection of the joint, so you should see your doctor immediately/the same day. If you are unable to see your doctor you may need to attend at your local Walk in Centre or A+E.
The Healthy Living Teams in provide tailored support and guidance to local people who would like to be more physically active. To find out more about the programmes available, please click on the link below for your Borough: