Elbow Pain and Tendonitis
Athletes and non-athletes of every age can experience the common form of elbow pain that’s often referred to as “tennis elbow” or “golfer’s elbow”. It’s important to note that both tennis and golfer’s elbow are misnomers, and most people who experience this pain are neither golfers nor tennis players. In fact, the sports in which these injuries show a notable increase tend to be throwing sports, like track and field and baseball.
But regardless of the sport or activity in which you’re involved, burning or tingling pain the elbow should not be ignored. There are several reasons this pain may be taking hold, and each reason deserves attention.
Common Causes of Elbow Pain
Here are the four most common reasons you may be experiencing elbow pain, along with some of the specific symptoms unique to each cause:
1. Lateral Epicondylitis. The word “lateral” refers to something on the outside of the body’s center line, and “itis” means inflammation. So lateral epicondylitis means an inflammation on the outside of the epicondyle or elbow bone. That’s all the term entails, which means this inflamed tissue may be located in any part of that area, and it may be inflamed for any reason, from overuse to trauma or impact. If you feel pain on the outside of your elbow joint or if you have difficulty forming a strong grip, this term probably describes your condition. Treat the sore area with the RICE principles (described below), and if it doesn’t resolve in a week or so, it may be time to see a doctor for a more detailed diagnosis.
2. Medial Epicondylitis. Like the condition above, this is an inflammation of the elbow joint, but in this case, the pain and tissue damage are occurring on the inside, or medial surface. If you feel this pain strongly in the crook of your elbow or have trouble summoning strength in your hand, treat this pain with RICE principles first, and see a doctor if the pain doesn’t resolve on its own.
3. Tendonitis. Tendonitis, as its name suggests, comes from an inflammation in the tendon, or the tissue that connects the bones of the elbow to the muscles of the hand and arm. Tendonitis is very common among all athletes who rely on their arms and hands, and most of the time this form of elbow pain is temporary and responds well to rest. Relaxing the pressure on the area and reducing training intensity for a while can allow the tendon to heal and fully recover. Of course, as above, if rest and icing do nothing to relive the pain, there may be a larger problem with the tendon (like a tear) that a doctor will need to diagnose.
4. Olecranon Bursitis. We have a small bony protrusion called the olecranon that protects the bursa similar to the way the patella protects the knee. If this little prominence experiences impact, trauma, damage or infection, the result can be sharp pain, tenderness, and swelling around the knob of the elbow. If your elbow pain seems to be centered around the olecranon process and involves visible swelling and redness, don’t wait more than a few days to have a doctor take a look at it. The damage may heal on its own, but it may also be worsened by infection.
Treating the Four Most Common Causes of Elbow Pain
If pain in the elbow is caused by any of the conditions above, start the healing process by treating the area with the rules of RICE: Rest, ice, compression and elevation. Follow the steps below.
1. Rest. First, stop doing any activity that makes the pain flair up. Don’t push the limits and don’t keep repeating a motion over and over if that motion makes your elbow pain feel worse. Step off the field for a while, which may mean to duration of one practice session or a few whole days. Try to keep the arm supported and the elbow still.
2. Ice. Hold an ice pack on the area of pain for 20 minutes at a time. Keep doing this for three or four hours a day until the pain subsides. Consider using a bag of frozen vegetables, like peas, since they retain their cold for a while and the bag can conform to the shape of the elbow.
3. Compression. Applying light, consistent pressure to area of inflammation and damage can speed healing, since it discourages fluid build-up and swelling. A snug pressure bandage or an ace bandage will do. Don’t wrap the bandage tightly enough to slow circulation, since blood flow brings the oxygen and nutrients the damaged tissue will need to recover.
4. Elevation. Whenever possible, raise the inflamed area above the level of the heart. This also helps to keep blood, fluid and waste products from building up around the injured area. Consider using a sling to keep the arm raised while walking around. While sitting and lying down, keep the arm above the torso.
When Should You Skip The RICE and See A Doctor Right Away?
The elbow is a delicate area, and elbow pain can be very complex. If you experience any of the conditions below, it may be a better idea not to wait for a few days. Make an appointment with a doctor right away if your elbow pain:
1. Happens at night or while you aren’t moving the elbow at all
2. Causes the joint to look deformed
3. Prevents you from using your hand or arm altogether
4. Prevents you from straightening the arm
5. Looks red and feels hot to the touch.
In cases like these, your elbow may be fractured, or the inflamed damaged tissue may have become infected. If your elbow needs to be treated with antibiotics or surgery, it probably won’t recover on its own and will only get worse without medical attention. But in most cases, a few days of rest and ice will allow the tissue to heal so you can pick up your training program where you left off.