What is arthritis in the elbow?

Arthritis of the elbow is mostly commonly caused by rheumatoid arthritis, but it can also be caused by osteoarthritis or injuries. Arthritis in the elbow can cause pain when the affected person bends or straightens the arm.

Common related conditions
Golfer's Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis) Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)

Causes of arthritis in the elbow

Arthritis in the elbow is caused by degeneration of the joint cartilage as a person ages.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes the joint linings to swell. Rheumatoid arthritis destroys the tissues, cartilage and bone in the elbow.

Osteoarthritis in the elbow is caused from the cartilage surface being worn down. Osteoarthritis in the elbow is not very common because the elbow has well-matched joints and strong ligaments.  

Injuries to the elbow can damage the cartilage in the joint and can develop into arthritis (even years after the accident).

Risk factors for elbow arthritis

A majority of patients who have arthritis in the elbow have a history of elbow injuries such as a fracture or elbow dislocation.

Other risk factors for elbow osteoarthritis include:

  • Age — although people of all ages can get arthritis, more men develop arthritis than women before age 45 and more women are impacted after the age of 45.
  • Trauma — people who have broken a bone in their hand, wrist or elbow are at a higher risk for developing osteoarthritis.
  • Repetitive movements — people who do jobs or activities that require repetitive movement in the hands are more likely to develop hand, wrist or elbow osteoarthritis.
  • Joint misalignment — Excess joint friction from misaligned bones in the hands, wrists or elbows can wear the cartilage in the hand, wrist or elbow down

Symptoms of arthritis in the elbow

The most common symptoms or signs of arthritis in the elbow are joint pain and stiffness and swelling.

Other symptoms of arthritis in the elbow include:

  • Pain when moving the arm or elbow
  • Locking or clicking sensation in the elbow
  • Inability to move the elbow
  • Instability and weakness in the elbow

Diagnosis of arthritis in the elbow

Arthritis in the elbow is diagnosed in a physical exam by your orthopedic physician. The physician will order an x-ray to evaluate the arthritic changes.

Treatments for arthritis in the elbow

Treatment for arthritis in the elbow depends on the progression of the disease, x-ray results and current medical condition.

In early stages, patients can manage the pain with anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and modification of activity levels.

As the disease progresses, the patient may need a corticosteroid injection or other non-invasive treatments. In the most severe cases, an elbow replacement may be indicated.

Treatments that Mercy Health offers include:

  • Physical therapy & rehabilitation
  • Arthroscopic debridement
  • Arthrodesis/fusion surgery
  • Arthroplasty/joint replacement surgery
  • Platelet rich plasma (PRP) injection

Recovery from arthritis in the elbow

There is no cure for arthritis in the elbow. It is important to work with your physician to manage the symptoms to slow the progression of the disease.

The goal of the treatments is to maximize function in the elbow in order to get as much motion in the joint as possible.

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