Elbow Pain Causes & Symptoms

Healthy Elbow

Understanding how your elbow works

Your elbow is a hinge joint made up of three bones. The upper portion of the hinge is the end of the upper arm bone (humerus) and the lower portion is the top of the two forearm bones (radius and ulna), which are side by side. All three of these bones are in contact with each other. In a healthy elbow joint, the surfaces of these bones are smooth and covered with a protective tissue called cartilage. The joint is surrounded with muscles and tendons that provide support and stability. A clear liquid called synovial fluid forms a lining of the joint to further reduce friction.


When osteoarthritis (OA) affects the elbow joint, the cartilage cushioning the bones softens and wears away, causing the bones to grind against one another. That grinding hurts. You can feel it lifting a sack of groceries, swinging a golf club or even reaching out to shake hands.

Although osteoarthritis is more common among people over 50 years old, people of any age can have OA due to previous injury, overuse of the joints or obesity. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and affects an estimated 27 million Americans.1

Symptoms2 of osteoarthritis include:

  • Joint aching and soreness
  • Pain, especially following activity
  • Stiffness after periods of rest
  • Swelling of the affected joint


Rheumatoid arthritis

In rheumatoid arthritis, the synovium that forms a lining of the joint becomes inflamed. The inflammation causes chemicals to be released that thicken the synovium and damage the cartilage and bone of the affected joint. This inflammation of the synovium causes pain and swelling.


Post-traumatic arthritis

Injury to the elbow can result in bone fractures and dislocation of the joint. Sometimes even after surgeries the bones or cartilage in the elbow do not return to the same positions they were before the injury. As a result, the cartilage in your elbow may absorb forces differently, which can result in premature wear of the cartilage in the area of the injury. This is called post-traumatic arthritis.

  1. Osteoarthritis. US Department of Health & Human Services. https://report.nih.gov/nihfactsheets/ViewFactSheet.aspx?csid=55

  2. Handout on Health: Osteoarthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. hhttps://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/osteoarthritis#tab-symptoms
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