African american woman with elbow arthritis

Elbow arthritis

Arthritis is a top cause of inflammation, pain and weakness in the elbow. It breaks down the cartilage that cushions the ends of the elbow bones. Arthritis can also lead to elbow loose bodies, a condition where pieces of cartilage and bone break off and “float” in the elbow joint.

There are two primary forms of arthritis:

  • Osteoarthritis—the most common form of arthritis, also known as “wear and tear” or degenerative arthritis. Almost everyone will eventually develop osteoarthritis. It causes a breakdown in the cartilage between each bone in the elbow joint. When this cartilage is worn away, the bones will start to grind against one another, causing pain, inflammation and decreased movement. 

  • Rheumatoid arthritis—an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks healthy parts of the body, especially the joints. In severe cases, it can cause joint deformities and organ problems. 

Elbow arthritis symptoms

The most common symptoms of elbow arthritis are:

  • Grating or locking sensation in the elbow

  • Loss of range of motion

  • Pain

  • Stiffness 

  • Swelling

Elbow arthritis diagnosis

Your doctor may diagnosis elbow arthritis with:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scans—a scan that creates detailed images of the bones, soft tissue and organs. 

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—uses a magnet, radio frequencies and computer to produce detailed pictures of organs and structures inside your body.

  • Physical examination to check for weakness, pain and crepitus (crackling in the joint).

  • X-rays— a test that takes images of the bones and surrounding soft tissue.

Elbow arthritis treatment 

Depending on the extent of your elbow arthritis, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatments: 

  • Anti-inflammatory and pain medications—medications that reduce swelling and inflammation that causes pain. 

  • Cold therapy—your doctor may recommend applying ice packs to the elbow several times a day to reduce pain and swelling. 

  • Cortisone injections—an anti-inflammatory steroid is injected into the elbow joint. 

  • Heat therapy—your doctor may recommend applying warm compresses to the elbow to warm up the joint before exercise or activity. 

  • Physical therapy—exercises to strengthen and regain range of motion the elbow muscles. 

  • Surgery—depends on the severity of the problem and may include arthroscopy or elbow joint replacement.

 At The Christ Hospital Health Network, our orthopedic surgeons and specialists are experts in diagnosing and treating all forms of elbow arthritis.