Experiencing Elbow Pain? There May Be Many Reasons For It
This blog article about elbow pain was written by Jocelyn Mach, PT, DPT, Joint Ventures Physical Therapy
Potential Causes of Elbow Pain Vary
Elbow pain can cause many issues in day to day life, but it’s not always simple to determine what’s causing it. There are many different reasons that your elbow may be painful, so narrowing down possibilities is essential in figuring out what to do for treatment.
Examples of elbow pain causes include:
- Acute trauma (a fall that results in landing on your arm which may cause dislocation, a break or a fracture)
- Arthritis (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis).
- Nerve entrapment (cubital tunnel syndrome, radial tunnel syndrome)
- Overuse injuries (from pushing, lifting, carrying or performing other repetitive motions)
When assessing an injury, your physical therapist or doctor will consider the way in which you injured yourself, prevalence and severity of your elbow pain symptoms as well as past medical history. They may also perform a movement assessment to help determine the root cause of your elbow pain and to figure out what the first steps in treating it could – and should be.
The most common causes of elbow pain that we see in physical therapy are related to overuse injuries. This type of injury doesn’t simply happen to athletes, either. Every day, people use their elbows all the time to complete tasks like lifting, carrying, and gripping objects, as well as when participating in many sports that involve throwing and/or swinging. These activities often involve repetitive motions of the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, which can lead to extra strain and stress being placed on these muscle groups. Sometimes, the repetitive movement can cause an overuse injury that will need to be addressed and treated by a physical therapist – or even in some cases, a surgeon.
One important thing to remember is that an overuse injury is usually pain that stems from a muscle or joint, and is due to repetitive trauma – but not all repetitive motions and activity will result in you experiencing pain. These repetitive activities and motions can be problematic if they are not performed correctly. Some of the reasons that simple activities can result in elbow pain are as follows: Poor technique, poor posture, committing training errors and an imbalance between activity and rest periods may all lead to overuse injuries and general elbow pain or soreness. An overuse injury can occur with either sports and exercise participants or during routine daily and work related duties. This is particularly true for people who perform repetitive tasks as part of their job duties. Examples of this include, but aren’t limited to, using a computer mouse, working with tools, using lab equipment or even having to pull or lift something like a package or furniture.
Here are some tips on avoiding overuse injuries that result in elbow pain:
– Take control of your workspace. Customize your desk’s setup to be beneficial for your health, and don’t be afraid to ask for an ergonomic assessment when possible.
– Gradually increase your physical activity level over time. This can be with respect to duration, distance, weight, or intensity level based on the type of exercise or activity you are performing. In many cases, people injure themselves at work or while playing a sport when they try to do too much at once.
– Concentrate on good form with proper posture. Don’t compromise your posture and form just to be able to lift heavier weights. Having proper posture and good form will go a long way.
– Rest periods and days are just as important as the other aspects of training. Be mindful of taking breaks and giving your body time to rest and recover.
– Cross-train and incorporate a variety of types of exercises and movements, because if you’re only focusing on one area, the others are not going to be as developed. Learning new skills and giving them adequate time to develop is one of the best ways to avoid elbow pain and suffering an overuse injury.
Two Common Types of Elbow Pain Overuse Injuries
Even though it’s possible for physical therapists to see a broad spectrum of elbow injuries, there are some that are much more common than others. Two of these are golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow, which impact the elbow joint in very different ways.
Golfer’s Elbow involves experiencing pain on the inner side of the elbow. This injury is also known as medial epicondylitis, which simply means that there is inflammation involving the tendons of the muscles on the inner side of your elbow. Medial epicondylitis can be a bit of a misnomer though, as it implies that inflammation is the only cause of symptoms, which isn’t the case. Instead, using the term “epicondylalgia” is being advocated as an alternative to recognize that it is very often a more complex condition with other possible underlying causes to account for symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of golfer’s elbow may include pain and tenderness of the inner elbow, difficulty and/or pain while lifting things, making a fist or performing twisting motions at the wrist, as well as weakness in your forearm muscles on the inner portion of your arm. Anyone who uses these muscles repetitively can be at risk for this, however it is much more commonly experienced by golfers, which is where the general name comes from.
Tennis elbow is an overuse injury that involves pain on the outside of the elbow. Also called lateral epicondylitis, this condition is the result of inflammation of the outer tendons and muscles of the elbow. At times, you may hear your doctor and physical therapist describe this condition as “lateral epicondylalgia”, which acknowledges the wide array of potential pathophysiological mechanisms that can produce pain, and also explains why controlling inflammation using ice and rest usually doesn’t solve the issue by itself.
Signs and symptoms of tennis elbow usually include pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow, weakness of the forearm muscle group on the outer side, and difficulty and/or pain with lifting, twisting, and manipulating objects, even when these motions are not done repetitively.
How Can Physical Therapy Improve Elbow Pain?
When experiencing pain in the elbow, many people often seek out the services of a physical therapist instead of going straight to a doctor, though both options can do a great deal of good. When choosing to work with a physical therapist, the type of treatment you will receive will largely depend on your individual impairments, any functional limitations and your overall goals for physical therapy. After an initial assessment, your physical therapist may decide to use variations of any of the following treatment plans to address your symptoms and get you back to normal function as quickly and safely as possible:
- Discussion of activity and lifestyle modifications to account for your injuries
- Discussing and modifying any training and/or technique errors that may contribute to initial onset of symptoms, and can lead to them continuing
- Implementing a home exercise program that aligns with goals and supplements activities done in-office
- Manual therapy to improve mobility at the elbow and/or other surrounding structures and joints
- Mobility and strengthening exercises that will benefit not only the arm and elbow, but the whole body
- Postural/ergonomic assessments and modifications that can improve elbow pain, but also make patients feel better overall
The symptoms and treatment options discussed above may sound simple, but they shouldn’t be considered or utilized without medical advice and supervision. After you’ve been diagnosed and started a treatment plan, you may be able to continue it even out of the office of your physical therapist, but elbow pain should be taken – and treated – seriously. To see if you’d benefit from physical therapy, consider using the BetterPT clinic locator tool or downloading the BetterPT app. Both options will put you in touch with reputable and reliable therapy professionals, like Joint Ventures Physical Therapy, that are more than happy and able to start you in the journey of decreasing your elbow pain and getting you back to your version of normal.
Jocelyn Mach, PT, DPT is a licensed physical therapist working in the Kendall Square location for Joint Ventures Physical Therapy. A graduate of Springfield College with a doctorate in physical therapy, she focuses on orthopedics and sports injuries, manual therapy and utilizing functional movement system concepts through the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA). In her free time, Mach enjoys to travel, participate in and watch sports and keep fit with outdoor exercise.