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Elbow pain

Elbow pain is common. Although it can be very uncomfortable it is rarely due to a serious cause. For most people the pain will normally resolve within 6-12 weeks without any treatment.


Common causes

A number of factors have been associated with elbow pain. These include:

  • A sprain/strain or a fall
  • A sudden increase or decrease in your normal activity or exercise levels
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nerve irritation - pain travelling from the neck into the arm and sometimes affecting the hand
  • Other conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia
  • Following a period of increased stress, worry or low mood
  • Following a period of poor sleep, fatigue or feeling run down
  • Other lifestyle factors such as being overweight and smoking
  • A flare up of longstanding elbow pain


Common symptoms

These include:

  • Pain around the outer side of the elbow is called ‘Tennis elbow’
  • Pain around the inner side of the elbow is called ‘Golfer’s elbow’
  • Pain on gripping
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Tingling or numbness in/or around the elbow or hand

You may experience constant or intermittent (comes and goes) symptoms that are aggravated by certain activities and reduced by others.


What can I do to help it?

  • In the first few days after an onset of elbow pain, changing or reducing your usual activities may help. However, there is strong evidence that keeping active and gradually returning to all your usual activities and exercise will help you recover.
  • It is normal to experience some pain during your recovery, but it does not mean you are damaging your elbow.
  • Try to stay at work or return as soon as you are able. Your employer, GP or health practitioner will be able to advise on how to return to your normal work duties.

Try some of these self-help tips to aid your recovery:

  • Apply a heat or icepack to the painful area – for up to 15 minutes. Never apply heat or ice directly to the skin.
  • A short course of simple pain medication as advised by your pharmacist or GP may help reduce pain and allow you to move more comfortably.
  • Keep moving. Regular movement and exercise is safe and helpful for elbow pain. It is important to build up gradually – the exercise or activity you enjoy most, is likely to help your recovery.
  • Good sleep habits and managing stress may help you cope better with your pain.


Facts about elbow pain

  • Elbow pain is common WITHOUT any damage to the joint.
  • X-rays and scans often DO NOT show the cause of your pain.
  • Creaking or clicking elbow joints are common in people without elbow pain. It is a RARELY a sign of harm or damage.
  • Movement and exercise is NOT harmful for elbow joint.
  • Your elbow can become stronger and healthier with regular movement and exercise.
  • Improving your sleep and general health is all also important for your elbow pain.


When should I seek medical advice?

Call your GP surgery if

  • Your pain is getting worse.
  • You have tried the self-help tips for 3-4 weeks and the symptoms have not improved.

Seek immediate medical advice if

  • After a fall or injury
    • your elbow is misshapen and swollen
    • you are unable to move your elbow/arm
  • You have a sudden loss of power and/or feeling in one or both arms and/or hands.
  • You have a fever and your elbow is hot, red, swollen and painful.


Do I need an X-Ray or scan?

  • X-rays or scans or are NOT usually required to diagnose elbow pain.
  • X-rays or scans are NOT able to tell us how much pain you are experiencing.
  • X-rays and scans often show joint narrowing and osteoarthritis which are common in people WITHOUT elbow pain. These findings are unlikely to change the way you manage your pain.
  • X-rays and scans are best used where a serious injury (e.g., a broken bone) or conditions such as cancer or infection are suspected.


Do I need a fit note?


Useful websites and resources

What should you know about joint health? What Should You Know About Joint Health? - Body Logic - Treating Arthritis


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