Arthritis of the Elbow

Doctor diagnosing painful elbow

Although it is a complex joint, the elbow is quite stable because of its many strong ligaments and well-matched surfaces; for this reason, it is less susceptible to osteoarthritis than other, weight-bearing joints, although previous injuries such as dislocation or fracture increase the possibility. When arthritis occurs in the elbow, it is most often the result of rheumatoid arthritis. In most cases, both elbows are affected at the same time.

For most people, the first symptoms are pain, swelling, and stiffness in the elbow. The pain may occur either while the arm is straightened, or when it’s bent; as the arthritis progresses, people often find that the pain worsens when they bend, straighten, or rotate their elbow. Lifting also becomes difficult, and some patients experience other uncomfortable sensations such as elbow locking or instability. In advanced cases, pain may continue even when the arm is at rest.

The earlier arthritis of the elbow is diagnosed, the easier it is to manage pain with less invasive measures. Alternating the use of ice and heat can be helpful: heat is good for relaxing stiffness, while ice helps reduce swelling. In early or mild cases, over the counter pain medication such as ibuprofen may be sufficient, but if other treatments fail, cortisone injections may be recommended for more long-term pain management. For those with rheumatoid arthritis, ant-rheumatic medications may be recommended – talk to your doctor about options.

Because activity can aggravate arthritic pain, physical therapy and splints or braces can be helpful. A physical therapist can recommend exercises for strengthening the elbow and easing pain. A brace, particularly one made of neoprene, provides support to the elbow while helping to reduce swelling.

At some point, surgical intervention may be necessary when pain becomes  unmanageable. There are several surgical options, including fusing the bones together to increase stability, as well as replacing the elbow joint altogether. Consult your doctor as to the best option for your case.


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