The diagnosis process for elbow conditions will depend on the initial symptoms you report and their severity. For example, sudden, severe onset of pain might suggest a fracture or other acute injury. In contrast, gradual onset might indicate an overuse injury such as tendinitis or “tennis elbow.”
Your doctor will likely perform an in-depth physical exam to look for possibly injuries and check your range of motion. This exam may also include imaging scans such as x-ray, MRI, or MRI-angiogram of the joint to get a picture of the bones or soft tissues. In rare cases, your doctor will use a needle to remove some of the fluid in the elbow joint (called “aspiration”) and look for underlying conditions like arthritis or gout.
How we treat your elbow will depend on your condition and its severity, your medical history, and risk factors. Many injuries respond well to rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen.
Sometimes, corticosteroid shots are necessary. Other tools for pain relief, such as massage, acupuncture, and electrical stimulation, can also help the elbow heal from overuse injury.
Some types of elbow injury require additional treatment. Infections of the joint space, for example, may require antibiotics or local treatment. Arthritis may need corticosteroids or anti-rheumatic drugs.
If your elbow pain was the result of a traumatic injury such as a fracture or ligament tear, you might need to use a cast or brace for several weeks until the injury heals.
Your doctor at Dignity Health may recommend elbow surgery to repair damage from severe or complex injuries, or if your condition does not respond to more conservative treatment after six to 12 months. Surgery can restore the function of the joint by repairing ligament damage or damage to the bones or other structures.
Physical therapy can help speed your recovery and prevent future problems as well.
Most cases of elbow pain resolve on their own after several days to three weeks of conservative treatment, such as over-the-counter pain relievers and at home rest, elevation, and ice.
More complex or chronic cases, such as arthritis or gout, may take longer to resolve. You may also need to complete physical therapy exercises to regain strength in your arm and return to your normal activities.
Whatever treatment you require, your Dignity Health doctor can advise you on the best next steps for elbow pain.
Talk to an orthopedic specialist at your nearest Dignity Health location to learn more about elbow treatment and recovery.
When to see a doctor for elbow pain
Elbow pain is often the result of a minor injury that does not require a hospital visit. In other cases, it is important to seek care as soon as possible in order to avoid serious injury and a long recovery.
If you notice severe pain, pain that comes on very suddenly during an activity, or pain that gets worse over a period of several days, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
In addition, noticing the following symptoms is cause to seek urgent (same-day) care:
- Deformity in the joint
- A protruding bone or injury to the elbow involving the skin
- Signs of infection such as severe or sudden swelling, fever, or red streaks
- Sudden swelling around the joint
- Bruising around the joint
- Pain in only one spot (also called “point tenderness”)
- Inability to bend your arm, move your hands or fingers, grip objects, or flip your palm up and down
- Numbness in your hand or fingers
- A cracking or popping sound
- Severe pain or pain that continues or worsens even when you aren’t moving your arm
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.