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Elbow pain

Elbow pain can be due to several causes, including injury, tendonitis, wear-and-tear or arthritis.

Three long bones meet at the elbow joint in the middle of the arm:

  • Upper arm (humerus)
  • Inner forearm (ulna)
  • Outer forearm (radius)

The elbow also includes tendons linking the muscles to the bones and a fluid-filled sac (bursa) to reduce friction,

This joint is used in many everyday tasks and sports.

People talk about hurting their 'funny bone' in the elbow, but this is actually a nerve called the ulnar nerve rather than a bone.

Elbow pain causes include:

Tennis elbow - Also called lateral epicondylitis, this is an overuse injury. Although it gets its name from tennis-related injuries, around 1 in 3 people experience it at some stage, usually in their dominant arm. Pain is usually felt on the outside of the elbow and becomes worse when squeezing something or shaking hands.

Golfer’s elbow - Also known as medial epicondylitis, this condition affects the inside of the elbow joint. It gets its name from golf, but it is a general overuse injury. It is caused by anything that leads to overuse of the muscles in the forearm that allow you to rotate your arm and flex your wrist, including golf swings.

Bursitis - If the bursa sac that cushions the elbow joint is injured, overused or infected, it may become painful, swollen or inflamed. This is called bursitis.

Fractures - Falls and other accidents can cause broken bones in the elbow or surrounding bones.

Sprain - A sprain to the elbow is caused by over-stretching or tearing a ligament.

Arthritis - Different types of arthritis can affect the elbows, including rheumatoid arthritis, gout, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, reactive arthritis (Reiter's disease) and septic arthritis. Symptoms include pain, swelling and reduced range of movement.

Trapped nerve or squashed nerve

Repetitive strain injury (RSI), an upper limb disorder or non-specific upper limb pain.

Referred pain - Pain can appear to come from the arm and elbow with the heart condition angina.


Treatment will depend on the type of elbow pain and how it happened.

A fracture will need urgent medical attention at a hospital.

Seek medical advice if you have elbow pain, especially if home care, ice packs wrapped in cloth, and painkillers, haven’t helped.

Diagnosis of elbow pain will be made based on the symptoms, a person's medical history, any likely causes, such as an accident, their job or other medical conditions.

Tests may be arranged, including X-rays or other scans.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on August 14, 2016

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