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Elbow pain

Diagnosis of elbow pain

The most critical element in a diagnosis is history. Your doctor will want to know when your pain started, and whether any injury or activity preceded your symptoms. The amount of time it took to come on is also significant. Suddenly feeling elbow pain typically indicates a traumatic injury, while pain that develops over time suggests an overuse or other inflammation-related injury.

Your doctor will likely also conduct a physical exam to test your range of motion and look for signs of injury, such as swelling.

If you have symptoms of an elbow injury, imaging is also a standard diagnostic tool. Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following to get a better view of your joint structure:

  • X-ray
  • MRI
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • Ultrasound

Less commonly, such as in cases of infection, gout, arthritis, or cancer, your doctor may use additional diagnostic tools such as joint fluid or blood tests.


Once a diagnosis is made, you and your doctor can decide on a treatment plan that’s right for you. In most cases, elbow pain can be treated successfully with rest, medication, bracing, or physical therapy. If surgery is required to treat your elbow pain, we offer advanced clinical care to handle more complex situations as part of our orthopedic services.


Most elbow pain will resolve in a few days up to a few weeks with conservative treatment approaches, such as over-the-counter medications, ice, immobilization, elevation, and rest.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend longer periods of rest, using a brace, or completing physical therapy to strengthen your muscles in your arm and eventually allow you to return to normal activities.

If you had an acute injury that required surgery, you might need several months to allow your bones or tissues to heal. Your doctor will tell you the best steps for a smooth recovery.

For elbow pain resulting from arthritis, many people find that medication relieves pain and allows them to return to normal activities.

When to see a doctor for elbow pain

For most elbow injuries, at-home care approaches such as elevation, ice, over-the-counter pain medications, and rest (avoiding the activity that caused the injury in particular) are enough to allow the joint to heal and reduce inflammation.

If your injury was the result of an acute injury such as a fall or collision, you should seek medical attention if:

  • Your symptoms do not improve, or they worsen after 48 hours of at-home treatment
  • You heard a crack or other sound at the time of injury
  • You notice excessive swelling or bruising around the joint
  • You cannot move your elbow
  • You notice any deformity or change of shape around the injury
  • You are in extreme pain from the injury even when you’re not moving your arm
  • You have any signs of infection, such as a fever or redness extending past the area of injury

When in doubt, it’s always best to seek medical advice. It will avoid further injury and delayed recovery. We provide comprehensive orthopedic care for joint and sports injuries, including elbow pain.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.