Common Elbow Injuries

The elbow joint is a hinge joint that also allows some rotational movement. Overuse elbow injuries, such as tendonitis and tendinopathy, are common among athletes that use their arms hands repetitively, such as in sports like tennis, squash, baseball and golf. Work and daily life activities such as manual labour, construction, yardwork, renovations and factory work commonly cause overuse elbow injuries. Traumatic elbow injuries may involve ligament tears and sprains, dislocations and fractures, and typically are more prevalent in sports such as wrestling, football and rugby.

Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)

Inflammation of the tendons that attach to the outer (lateral) side of the elbow. Typically caused by repetitive or traumatic wrist extension, hand gripping or direct impact. Common in certain sports such as tennis (especially on the backhand), but also golfing when hitting a large divot. Symptoms include pain and tenderness at the lateral elbow, pain when gripping and extending the wrist. Besides acute injury management (LINK), treatment includes physiotherapy, bracing, strengthening, stretching, shock-wave therapy, topical anti-inflammatories, chiropractic, massage therapy, and sometimes specialized injections are needed. As with other overuse injuries, tennis elbow requires addressing any contributing factors such as training techniques, body biomechanical issues and sport equipment.

Golfer's Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis)

Inflammation of the tendons that attach to the inner (medial) side of the elbow. Typically caused by repetitive or traumatic wrist flexion, hand gripping or direct impact. Common in certain sports such as golf. Symptoms include pain and tenderness at the medial elbow, pain when gripping and flexion the wrist and fingers. Besides acute injury management (LINK), treatment includes physiotherapy, bracing, strengthening, stretching, shock-wave therapy, topical anti-inflammatories, chiropractic, massage therapy, and sometimes specialized injections are needed. As with other overuse injuries, golfer’s elbow requires addressing any contributing factors such as training techniques, body biomechanical issues and sport equipment.

golfer holding elbow with one hand and golf club in other

Olecranon Impingement

Inflammation or mechanical irritation at the joint at the back of your elbow. Typically occurs in athletes who have to fully straighten (extend or hyperextend) their elbow repeatedly (e.g., throwers, pitcher, boxers). Also seen as a result of a hyperextension elbow trauma (LINK to injury below). Symptoms include pain at the back (posterior) and outside (lateral) part of the elbow, lack of range of motion, grinding or catching sensations, and sometimes swelling. Treatment includes physiotherapy, other types of therapy, throwing and punching technique changes, bracing, and in severe cases may require injections or surgery.

Elbow Bursitis

Inflammation and swelling of the bursa (fluid-filled sac that normally decreases friction) at the back (posterior) of the elbow. Typically caused by repetitive contact or acute trauma. Symptoms include swelling (looks like a jiggly ball at the back of the elbow) that is often not painful, but can be sensitive to the touch. Treatment includes diligent icing and compression, avoiding any contact at all to the posterior elbow and anti-inflammatory medications or creams. Sometimes draining the fluid is needed but only rarely.

Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) Injury

The UCL is a ligament that stabilizes the inner (medial) side of the elbow. Common in baseball players but also in other throwing sports. Typically caused by repetitive or acute throwing motions, that cause tearing or straining of the UCL. Symptoms include pain, swelling, instability and weakness in the throwing motion. Besides acute injury management (LINK), typical treatment includes physiotherapy, bracing, taping and sometimes surgery in severe tears. As with other overuse injuries, UCL overuse injuries require addressing any contributing factors such as throwing technique, body biomechanical issues and sport equipment.

Radial Head Fracture

The radial head is a part of one of the forearm bones located at the outside (lateral) part of the elbow. This bone tpically is broken from falling onto your outstretched hand or also sometimes from a direct blow to the elbow. Symptoms include pain and swelling at the lateral side of the elbow, as well as a lack of range of motion. Besides acute injury management (LINK), treatment typically involves using a sling, sometimes a brace or cast, physiotherapy early on to prevent long-term stiffness and tightness. Radial head fractures that are displaced may require surgery.

Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) Tear

Injury to the ligament at the inner (medial) side of the elbow. Typically occurs either as an acute injury (e.g., sudden hard throw, traumatic fall, blow to the outside of the elbow) or as a chronic loosening of the ligament (e.g., baseball pitcher). Symptoms include pain at the medial elbow, instability, weakness and swelling. Besides acute injury management (LINK), mild and moderate UCL injuries are treated with physiotherapy, bracing, throwing technique correction and other types of therapy. Severe cases such as complete ruptures require surgical reconstruction.

 

Distal Biceps Tendon Rupture

The biceps tendon is located at the front of the elbow. A rupture is a complete tear of the biceps tendon and occurs more commonly in middle-aged adults from a forceful contraction of the biceps muscle against a sudden resistance. Symptoms include a sudden severe pain at the front of the elbow, followed by swelling and possibly bruising and weakness. Besides acute injury management (LINK), treatment may require urgent surgical repair followed by physiotherapy.

Elbow Osteoarthritis

Degeneration of the elbow cartilage layer which acts like a shock absorber. Contributing factors include older age, previous serious injuries (e.g. fractures, dislocations), heredity/genetics, and certain professions or activities that put abnormal straining on the elbow. Symptoms include pain, swelling, mechanical symptoms (e.g., grinding, catching, clicking), stiffness, and decreased range of motion. Treatment is multi-factorial and includes strengthening, stretches, pain medication and creams, anti-inflammatories, physiotherapy, bracing, supplements, injections and may sometimes require surgery if severe.

female tennis player holding elbow
man pointing at window

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

The cubital tunnel is a bony groove at the inner (medial) side of the elbow through which the ulnar nerve passes. Cubital tunnel syndrome involves compression of the ulnar nerve, typically through repetitive bending of the elbow, or from chronic or traumatic pressure on this side of the elbow. Symptoms include numbness and tingling in your ring and baby fingers and that side of the hand (like when you “hit your funny bone”). Treatment includes special physiotherapy techniques for neurological injuries, elbow bracing or splinting, anti-inflammatory medication and creams. More severe cases sometimes require injections or surgery.

Elbow Hyperextension Injury

Occurs when the elbow if forcibly straightened (hyperextended) beyond its normal range. Typically occurs from a forceful blow to the back of the elbow, falling with an outstretched hand, and other mechanisms that can occur in contact sports such as wrestling and football. Besides acute injury management (LINK), treatment includes physiotherapy, bracing and splinting.

Individual treatments may vary based on the specific diagnosis and severity of the injury. Seeking professional medical advice for an accurate diagnosis and a tailored treatment plan is recommended for optimal recovery.

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