Common Conditions of the Elbow
Your elbows are essential to your arm, as they act as a hinge that helps you rotate and turn your forearms, hands, and wrists. Because of their centrality in your arms, it’s easy to overuse or overstress your elbows. Consequently, the most frequent elbow injuries are those to your soft tissue — the muscles, tendons, and nerves that traverse the elbow. Regardless of your specific condition, an accurate diagnosis is crucial to fast and effective treatment. Here are six common conditions that can happen in the elbow.
Your bicep muscle helps your elbow bend and is also vital to shoulder movement. The distal biceps tendon is the part of the biceps that connects to your elbow. You can strain or tear your distal biceps tendon during an elbow extension, such as when you’re lifting or pulling something heavy.
If you strain your distal biceps tendon, a physical therapist can help you rehabilitate it — and the surrounding muscles — to help you rebuild any strength you lose from a biceps tear. This therapy usually also involves soft tissue mobilization to assist the healing process. You’ll likely need surgical repair for complete distal biceps tears. Your surgeon can use several different techniques, but the sooner you undergo surgery following a tear, the better.
The triceps is the large muscle in your arm behind the biceps. This powerful muscle helps you straighten your elbow and connects to the olecranon — where your elbow comes to a point — at the triceps tendon. Like with biceps, a triceps strain or tear is usually due to overuse or a sudden change in your workout or exercise level.
Minor triceps strains typically heal with rest. If you require treatment, a physical therapist can help you strengthen and heal the triceps. A complete triceps tear from the olecranon will require surgery. This operation involves reattaching the triceps tendon to your elbow — specifically the olecranon — using anchors.
There are two primary forms of epicondylitis: lateral and medial epicondylitis. Overuse and repetitive stress cause lateral epicondylitis — also known as tennis elbow. The symptoms of lateral epicondylitis include a burning sensation or pain on the outside of your elbow. This pain can occur while you’re using your elbow or even while you’re resting.
You can cause medial epicondylitis — or golfer’s elbow — by gripping an object too forcefully or rotating your forearm too much. Symptoms of medial epicondylitis include tenderness or pain in your elbow where the forearm and finger flexors — the ligaments that help you bend every finger but your thumb — connect.
Treatment for both types of epicondylitis are similar and can include the following:
- Physical therapy, including stretching and weight training.
- Soft tissue mobilization.
On either side of the elbow, thick ligaments — called collateral ligaments — bind the elbow joint and help you avoid dislocation. The inside ligament, or ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), stabilizes your elbow, especially when you’re making an overhand throwing motion.
Because of the UCL’s importance, this is the elbow ligament that a sprain or tear most commonly affects. Such injuries usually occur from overuse or repetitive stress. Symptoms of a UCL injury include:
- A lack of throwing ability.
- Pain on either side of the elbow after throwing or doing another overhead activity.
- Tingling or numbness in the pinky and ring fingers.
Like a biceps or triceps strain, your provider will likely treat a minor UCL injury with the following:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Physical therapy.
Your provider may recommend UCL reconstruction surgery — or Tommy John Surgery — in severe cases with a significant tear. The procedure takes a tendon from somewhere else in your body or from a donor to use as your new UCL. This new tendon is then grafted onto your bones to strengthen it.
Generally, nerve compression in your elbow will come in two forms: cubital tunnel and radial tunnel. Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when you compress your ulnar nerve on the inside section of your elbow. Also called the “funny bone,” this nerve can compress if you keep your elbow bent for an extended period. Symptoms of a cubital tunnel nerve compression include:
- A tingling sensation.
- Reduced grip strength.
Radial tunnel syndrome happens when you compress the radial nerve in your elbow. This nerve compression typically occurs from overextending your elbow or certain repetitive motions. Symptoms of radial tunnel compression include:
- Pain stretching from the outside of your elbow to your forearm.
- Aching in your forearm during or after use.
- Reduced grip strength.
Nonsurgical treatments for both radial and cubital tunnel syndrome are largely the same and include:
- Bracing or splinting.
- Steroid injections.
- Physical therapy.
While nonsurgical treatments will almost always work for radial tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome may require surgical intervention. Your provider may discuss several kinds of surgeries with you that can help with cubital tunnel syndrome.
The three most common kinds of elbow fractures are:
- Radial head fractures.
- Olecranon fractures.
- Distal humerus fractures.
A radial head fracture is a break at the end of the elbow closest to the radius. An olecranon fracture is a break to the pointy part of your elbow that helps create your elbow’s hinge joint. A distal humerus fracture is a break to the bone in the upper arm close to the elbow joint. A fall or direct impact is generally responsible for each of these fractures.
You can often treat radial head and distal humerus fractures with nonsurgical options, although there are many surgical treatments available if necessary. You can also treat olecranon fractures through nonsurgical options, but these fractures require emergency treatment, and if surgery is needed, it’s an extensive procedure.
If you have one of these common elbow conditions, the Hand and Wrist Institute is here to help. Our expert staff has served the Dallas-Fort Worth area for over 25 years. We combine cutting-edge technology and the latest, most innovative techniques with years of expertise to help every patient get back to their typical routine as fast as possible. Contact the Hand and Wrist Institute today to ask any questions and schedule an appointment. A healthy elbow is critical to living a full, active life.