Lateral Elbow Pain
The most common term for pain on the outside of the elbow is Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis). However, there are a number of other causes of lateral elbow pain which should be considered as well as acute elbow injuries such as ligament sprains and fractures. Other potential causes of pain on the outside of the elbow include referred pain, radial tunnel syndrome, synovitis, bursitis and osteochondritis dissecans.
Tennis Elbow is a general term used to describe outer elbow pain. The most common causes are inflammation or degeneration of the tendon where the wrist extensor muscles insert into the elbow. This can occur from sports, like tennis, and other activities that put stress on the elbow muscles. It is also known as lateral epicondylitis or extensor tendinopathy.
Radial tunnel syndrome, or radial nerve entrapment as it is sometimes called, is when the radial nerve gets compressed or restricted in the tunnel it passes through. This elbow injury is more often caused by rotation of the wrist/lower arm rather than repetitive extension like tennis elbow, but the symptoms of both these injuries can be similar.
Osteochondritis Dissecans is a fragmentation of the cartilage and sometimes the underlying bone within a joint. This is common in adolescents as the ends of the bones are not yet fully hardened. This elbow injury can be caused and exacerbated by throwing sports, so resting from this activity can help to ease the pain. Read more on the symptoms, causes and treatments.
Synovitis of the elbow joint is inflammation of the synovial membrane which surrounds the joint. Symptoms include elbow joint pain and redness over the area. However, synovitis is itself usually caused by another condition, including an injury to the joint or an illness like cancer. Because of this, synovitis can indicate a serious problem so getting medical advice is essential.
Radiohumeral bursitis can also give similar symptoms to tennis elbow. This is inflammation of a bursa or small sack of fluid which sits between the tendon and the bone to help lubricate it. This elbow injury can be caused by a direct impact to the joint or arm, with some common symptoms being elbow pain, swelling and restricted movement.
Immediate first aid for elbow injuries
All acute and chronic injuries should be treated using the P.R.I.C.E. therapy principle. This should be applied at home for at least the first 2 - 3 days. P.R.I.C.E. stands for Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
- Protection - Protect the injury from further damage. Where applicable, use of an arm sling or elbow support is recommended.
- Rest - Refrain from using the arm/elbow.
- Ice - The topical application of ice or cold therapy to the area of the injury can assist in reducing the symptoms of pain and inflammation.
- Compression - The use of a compression support to the arm or elbow can can help reduce swelling.
- Elevation - Keeping the hand elevated above heart level whenever possible to help reduce swelling in the hand due to the effects of gravity. This is best achieved using an upper arm sling.
Read more on first aid for elbow injuries.
When should I see a doctor?
- Severe pain in the upper arm, elbow or forearm, especially after a fall.
- Severe swelling (oedema) around the injured area.
- An audible “crack” of the upper arm or forearm after a fall.
- A feeling when the bone at the elbow comes out of its joint (dislocates) – a common injury seen in young children that is caused accidentally (see above).
- Altered sensation in the hand or arm – such as a feeling of “pins and needles” (paresthesia) or a “loss of feeling” (anaesthesia) in the hand.
- Unable to complete your normal daily activities after the initial 72 hours.
Further medical assistance can be sought through either your local GP or a private clinician such as a physiotherapist, sports therapist, osteopath or chiropractor.
Read more about when you should seek medical advice for elbow injuries.