Posterior elbow pain is a pain at the back of the elbow. It may develop gradually over time (chronic), or occur suddenly from a direct impact or fall (acute). Here we explain the common causes of pain on the outside of the elbow.
Is your elbow pain sudden onset or did it develop gradually over time?
Gradual onset pain at the back of the elbow
The following injuries are common causes of gradual onset or chronic elbow pain. You will not have noticed a precise incident or time where your injury occured.
Elbow Bursitis – Students Elbow
Elbow bursitis, also known as Students elbow or Olecranon bursitis, is the inflammation and swelling of the bursa at the back of the elbow.
- Traumatic or repetitive impacts to this area can cause a large swelling at the back of the joint.
- Symptoms include pain in the elbow both at rest and during exercise.
- Painful swelling on the back of the elbow may limit movement.
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The triceps tendon at the back of the upper arm inserts into the elbow. Injury can occur to the tendon from overuse, or from a sudden impact such as a fall. Symptoms include:
- Pain at the back of the elbow, both at rest and during exercise.
- The elbow will be tender to touch pressing in just above the bony protrusion on the back of the elbow.
- The patient may have limited mobility and straightening the elbow against resistance will be painful.
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Posterior elbow impingement
Posterior impingement is a common cause of pain at the back of the elbow. Pain is felt when the arm is straightened to the maximum range of movement and in some people, the elbow may ‘over-straighten’ and begin to bend back the wrong way.
In young athletes, it is caused by repeated hyperextension (over straightening/bending back the wrong way). Over time bone growth in the elbow occurs which makes the impingement worse and eventually may lead to deformity, where the athlete is unable to straighten the arm fully. In older athletes, Osteoarthritis or wear and tear of the elbow joint is the most likely cause.
Treatment may involve taping or wearing an elbow support to limit the range of movement at the elbow, preventing hyperextension. If conservative treatment is not successful then surgery may be required to remove the impinging bone growth.
Acute posterior elbow pain
The following injuries are common causes of acute or sudden onset pain at the back of the elbow.
The olecranon is the large bony prominence at the back of the elbow on the ulna forearm bone. It is usually fractured from a direct impact or fall onto a bent elbow. Symptoms include:
- Sudden intense pain at the back of the elbow will be felt at the time of injury.
- The patient will in most cases be unable to straighten the elbow.
- Rapid swelling and bruising may start to appear.
- Trying to move the elbow will be painful and the back of the elbow will be very tender to touch.
More on Olecranon fracture