What are Overuse Injuries of the Elbow?

Overuse injuries of the elbow are injuries that happen when you strain your elbow by using it too much or using it for a repetitive movement that hurts the muscles, joints, or bones in your arm.

Your elbow is a joint in your arm that is made up of three bones:

  • Your upper arm bone (humerus)
  • The two bones in your forearm (radius and ulna).

These bones have bumps at the bottom called condyles which give shape to your elbow.

Common overuse injuries of the elbow include: tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, and baseball injuries. While these injuries can be similar in some ways, they all have different causes and can sometimes be treated in different ways.

  • Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis is an inflammation of the tendons that connect to your forearm muscles to the outside of your elbow. These muscles can be hurt when you use them too much, especially with repeated motions like swinging a tennis racket. This happens because certain movements put pressure on the muscles that help keep your wrist stable. Those muscles can get weakened over time, causing tiny tears in the tendon. These tears cause inflammation and pain on the outside of your forearm, elbow, and wrist. Even though it is called tennis elbow, any repetitive movement that puts strain on the wrist and forearm can cause this condition.
  • Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis is similar to tennis elbow, because both are overuse injuries of the elbow that can be caused by repeated movement. Golfer's elbow is different because it is caused by activities that make you twist or flex your wrist repeatedly. This causes inflammation on the inside of your arm and elbow.

Symptoms

Symptoms Even though there are many different kinds of overuse injury of the elbow, many of these conditions have similar symptoms. These can include:

  • Forearm pain. You might have pain in your forearm that runs from your forearm to your wrist. Golfer’s elbow will cause pain on the inside of your forearm, while tennis elbow will cause pain on the outside.
  • Wrist pain. You may experience pain when you try and flex your wrist with your palm down.
  • Pain when shaking hands. Gripping someone else’s hand might cause pain in your wrist or forearm.
  • Weak grip. You might notice that you can’t grip things as hard as you could before you were injured.
  • Numbness. You might not be able to feel parts of your elbow, forearm, wrist, or fingers.

When to See a Doctor

Overuse injuries of the elbow can sometimes happen over a long period of time. This means that symptoms can sometimes go away for a while, or you might not notice any symptoms until your condition gets worse. Sometimes, golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow can go away on their own, but you should see a healthcare provider if your condition gets worse or does not get better.

Causes

There are many jobs, household activities, and physical activities that can cause overuse injuries of the elbow. Different injuries can be caused by different activities.

Certain physical jobs or household activities can increase your risk for this overuse injury of the elbow. People with certain jobs are at risk because the movements needed for these jobs can also put strain on the elbow. These include:

  • Painters
  • Cooks
  • Butchers

Auto workers, plumbers, and carpenters can also get tennis elbow because of the way that people in these jobs need to move and carry heavy objects.

Golfer’s elbow is caused by repeated twisting and flexing of the wrist, which you might do during many different activities, especially certain sports. Some sports that are more likely to cause golfers elbow include:

  • Golf
  • Baseball and other throwing sports like football
  • Sports where you use a racket, like tennis or squash
  • Weight training

Other twisting activities like using a screwdriver can also lead to golfer’s elbow. This means you might be at risk if you have certain jobs, like:

  • Painter
  • Plumber
  • Construction worker or carpenter
  • Butcher or chef
  • Factory worker
  • Computer-focused jobs

Diagnosis and Tests

To find out if an overuse injury of the elbow is causing your pain, your healthcare provider will start with a physical exam. They will look at your forearm and ask you to move your fingers, hands, and wrists. They might touch parts of your arm and wrist to see if there are parts that are painful. Usually, this is enough to tell if you have tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, or another overuse injury of the elbow. However, your healthcare provider might decide to take an x-ray of your bone and the inside of your arm if they can’t diagnose your problem.

Treatments & Prevention

Treatments

If you notice symptoms of an overuse injury of the elbow, you can take some steps right away to help with this problem:

  • Put ice on the parts of your elbow, forearms, or wrist that feel sore, inflamed, or tender. You should use the ice every 3 or 4 hours for 15 to 20 minutes each time. Ice can help reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen. Always follow the package directions, and don’t take more than the package or your healthcare provider say.

If your healthcare provider decides that you have one of these injuries, they might tell you to do certain exercises that will stretch and strengthen your forearm and elbow. Once you are feeling better, you can slowly go back to the activity that caused the injury.

Usually, overuse injuries of the elbow will heal on their own with these basic treatments. However, if you are still having symptoms after 6 to 12 months, your healthcare provider may recommend physical therapy or surgery to help you get better.