Joint Injury - The Elbow

Publication Date: 
Tue, 11/08/2011
By: Alere Staff

 

Keeping your body moving requires more than just a brain signal from your head to your muscles. Your musculoskeletal system puts these signals to movement and is made up of your bones, muscles and joints. Just like the song from your childhood, your bones are connected to each other at joints. On the end of each bone there are linings of smooth cartilage, soft tissues called synovial membranes and fluids that help cushion the movement, making sure your bones do not rub against each other.1

 

Strong tissues called tendons and ligaments help to make these connections solid.1 These integral parts of the human body help support your weight, your organs and perform basic functions and movement.

However, what happens when you get an injury at any of these precious joint locations? They not only can be painful, but can limit your mobility and activity for long periods of time. A joint that can be a common source of pain and discomfort is the elbow joint.

The Elbow Joint

Your elbow is where the two bones of your forearm, the radius and ulna, meet the bone of your upper arm, the humerus. The elbow joint itself is actually made up of two joints: the humeroradial joint where the radius and humerus meet and the proximal radioulnar joint where the radius and ulna meet. Both joints function differently allowing you to move different parts of your arms and palms as well as bending and rotating them in different directions.2

The elbow joint, like other joints within your body, can be prone to injury, arthritis and other related conditions. While it may not be the joint you think of protecting, injury to the elbow joint can be caused by overuse, a blow, a fall or any other type of trauma including sports and car accidents. Different types of injuries include2:

  • Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis): when the tendons that connect the forearm muscles at the elbow become inflamed due to repetitive overuse.
  • Olecranon fractures: the olecranon is the most easily fractured bone of the elbow and is the point that sticks out when you bend your elbow at 90 degrees. It is the most vulnerable because it lies just beneath the skin and is not protected by muscles and other soft tissues.
  • Distal humerus fracture: a fracture of the lower end of the upper arm bone where it meets the radius. While this is not common, it can occur if you fall with an outstretched arm.
  • Bursitis: inflammation of the bursa at the tip of the elbow can cause pain, swelling and stiffness.
  • Biceps tendon tear: this occurs when the tendons that attach to your biceps muscle to the bones in the elbow are torn.
  • Dislocations: while dislocations of the elbow are less common than the shoulder or hip, they can still occur if given the right amount of force such as from a fall.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Should you experience any elbow pain, have trouble moving the joint or suspect an injury, tell your physician. Diagnosing elbow joint troubles will start with a physical exam where your doctor will look at your elbow and see if any of your other joints are having issues. Your doctor will look for tender areas, where you experience pain, if there is swelling or if there may be any visible damage. Should they feel it necessary, they may even order lab or imaging tests.2

For many elbow issues, medications can be prescribed to help with pain, relieve any inflammation and any other issues that are occurring within your joints. The medications you use will be determined by the particular form of arthritis you may have or the particular injury. Some of these medications include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, analgesics and sometimes even salves, rubs or balms.2 As a patient on warfarin, discuss your warfarin use with your doctor as you will have to make sure the medication you use will not affect your INR. When you visit your physician, you can make sure to include such medications are on your Safe Medication List.

In some cases, elbow joint troubles cannot be solved through medication alone, particularly if the injury interferes with the function of the joint. When you experience pain in the elbow, it is best to start taking self-care measures. Use the acronym RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. Seeking care within 48 hours can help keep the condition from worsening.2 Other care instructions may include physical therapy, braces, splints or even assistive devices such as zipper pulls or long-handed brushes to ease the strain on your elbow injury and help you heal.

In more severe injuries, surgery may be necessary. Some of these surgeries include fracture repair using metal plates and screws to hold pieces in place while they heal, arthropscopy and sometimes even an elbow replacement.2 After surgery, physical therapy can help get your joint moving the way it should.

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References:

  1. Experts in Older Adult Care. Joint Problems: Basic Facts and Information. Health in Aging. March 2012. Retrieved from website: http://www.healthinaging.org/aging-and-health-a-to-z/topic:joint-problems/
  2. Arthritis Foundation. Elbow Anatomy: An Inside Look at the Structure of the Elbow. Retrieved November 18, 2015 from the website: http://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/where-it-hurts/elbow-pain/elbow-anatomy.php