With references to the funny bone and its strange shape, it can be hard to take the elbow seriously, Sure, it’s a joint in the body that allows us to lift our morning coffee, hug our family members, and hoist our babies into the air, but we often take it for granted… until it starts to hurt. Elbow pain when lifting and gripping can quickly progress from a minor twinge to a major disability. Imagine suddenly not being able to use your dominant hand to grip a pencil, steer your car, or do your job. If you are experiencing elbow pain when lifting, here are eight ways to treat it.
What causes elbow pain when lifting?
Understanding the anatomy of the elbow is important when looking for the causes of your elbow pain when lifting.
The elbow is a synovial joint where three bones intersect. The radius and ulna are bones of the forearm, and the humerus is the upper arm bone. The junction where these bones meet has two round bumps: the lateral epicondyle (the bump on the outside of the elbow) and the medial epicondyle (the bump on the inside). These are the points of contact for the connective tissue of the elbow joint. They are covered by cartilage that cushions and eases movement.
A synovial lining surrounds the entire joint, and bursa – fluid-filled sacs – also help keep the joint mobile and comfortable. The synovial capsule is filled with synovial fluid that lubricates the joint. Ligaments and connective tissue provide stability and support as the joint moves.
When any of these structures are stressed, strained, or otherwise injured, elbow pain when lifting and gripping can occur. So, what typically causes elbow pain?
From dislocated elbows to stress fractures, injuries to the elbow can cause debilitating elbow pain, when lifting or even when simply straightening your arm.
Strain or stress (repetitive motion)
Some of the more common causes of elbow pain when lifting are considered wear and tear causes.
If you have a job that requires doing the same motions over and over for long periods of time, your elbow is susceptible to injury. This includes everyone from professional musicians who bow an instrument to workers on an assembly line.
The bursa are fluid-filled sacs that cushion movement, but any inflammation in these can lead to excruciating pain.
In some cases, the bursa’s fluid leaks out or diminishes over time, causing painful bone-on-bone rubbing.
Tennis or golfer’s elbow
Tennis elbow is a common repetitive motion or stress injury that occurs on the outside of the elbow. The pain of golfer’s elbow is typically felt on the inside of the elbow.
The motions of swinging a racquet or golf club, especially over time and with the slightest change in proper alignment, can cause irritation and stress in the joint.
Carpal tunnel is familiar to anyone who works for long hours on a keyboard, but cubital tunnel or radial tunnel may be less familiar.
The ulner nerve passes through the inside of the elbow (the cubital tunnel), and the radial nerve sneaks around the outside of the elbow (the radial tunnel). If either of these becomes compressed, you might experience elbow pain when lifting light objects or elbow pain when gripping.
Tendonitis refers to inflammation and pain in the tendons, those tough strands of connective tissue that attach muscle to bone.
When injury or strain to the tendons occurs, they can become painful. Tendonitis can take a long time to heal and usually requires complete rest of the joint for a period of time.
Referred pain is pain that originates in another part of the body but is felt elsewhere.
Some people with shoulder pain may make slight changes to how they use their shoulder joint, causing a ripple effect that results in elbow pain. This may also occur for people who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome.
What does elbow pain when lifting usually feel like?
There is a wide spectrum of experiences when it comes to elbow pain. Not everyone has all of the following symptoms, but the most common include:
- Radiating pain (up or down the arm)
- Soreness, or a constant dull ache
- Sharp pain with movement
- Stiffness in the joint after inactivity
- Weakness in the joint
- Numbness or tingling in the arms, elbow, or fingers
- Pain that worsens over time
- Difficulty with gripping (even to open a door or shake a hand)
- Pain when the elbow is bent
- Pain when the elbow straightens
- Redness and swelling
- Burning sensation within the joint
Elbow pain when lifting may not be the first symptom, but as time passes, this may become a primary symptom. Pain may also be felt anywhere in the joint. Where pain occurs depends primarily on the cause and how you use your elbow.
What happens if elbow pain goes untreated?
It can be tempting to ignore minor elbow pain. After all, if it is minor and not impacting your daily life, the idea of complete rest or another intervention seems inconvenient at best.
While there are some causes that just require a little rest, others will not heal without intervention and may get worse. Getting a proper diagnosis of the cause of your elbow pain is crucial to determine the best strategy for quick healing (and to prevent further injury that might require more interventional treatments).
Your doctor will take a thorough medical history, including discussing any regular activities you participate in and what you do for work. They will examine your elbow, putting the joint through several movements to determine which motions spark pain and which you can complete in comfort. Typically, in the advanced stages of elbow pain, there will be tender spots on and around the elbow. This is good information to help make a diagnosis, too.
Although not always necessary, X-rays and MRIs can help rule out other types of pain, including referred pain that needs different attention altogether.
How to prevent and fix elbow pain when lifting
Elbow pain treatment always begins with prevention. For golfers and tennis players, preventing golf elbow and tennis elbow starts with adjusting the mechanics of your swing. Have your form evaluated by a professional, and work to make any adjustments to protect your elbows. This might include strength training in the arms to help support your elbow joint.
Prevention is important for others who are vulnerable to tennis elbow, too. For people at risk of repetitive motion injury to the elbow, it’s crucial to take regular breaks to stretch and move the elbow. Listen to any cues from your body – fatigue in the grip, soreness, or aching – that might indicate you are overdoing it.
If, in spite of your best efforts at prevention, you begin to experience elbow pain when lifting, there are eight elbow pain treatments to try.
Unfortunately, many tendon and ligament injuries require total rest of the joint to heal, sometimes for weeks.
Tendons and ligaments are strong connective tissues that are not meant to be stretched rapidly. If this happens and a tear occurs, rest may be the best option. Always talk to your doctor about your best treatment approach.
2. Over-the-counter analgesics
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can help ease pain and inflammation. Rest and analgesics are usually combined before any active treatment can begin.
It is important to note that opioids are not recommended for pain relief in either acute or chronic elbow pain. There is no research evidence that supports their use, and they are contraindicated due to the high prevalence of damaging side effects and the possibility of dependence.
If your pain is not severe and the condition is not advanced, you may be able to simply brace the elbow for support during your day.
Braces may be wrapped around the joint, circle below the joint, or even be combined with a sling to immobilize the elbow completely.
While massaging the elbow joint directly can be incredibly painful, try a massage of the muscles of the arms, back, and shoulders.
This can be supportive and help to heal any referred pain in those areas. In some cases, tense muscles in the arms may increase elbow pain. Massage also stimulates blood flow to the area, which can speed and support healing.
5. Physical therapy
Physical therapy is a great way to correct improper use of the elbow while building up strength and support in the surrounding muscles.
A physical therapist will design and supervise an exercise plan to improve your range of motion and correct any improper use of the elbow.
Especially for tennis elbow, acupuncture has been proven effective in some studies when it comes to decreased pain, increased grip strength, and improved range of motion. Smaller studies confirm this result as well.
In addition to working to improve elbow pain, acupuncture comes with zero side effects. This means it is a zero-risk treatment for patients who have tried rest, physical therapy, and other forms of pain relief without success.
From the National Football League to Major League Soccer, platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections are gaining support as the treatment of choice for tendon and ligament issues in the joints.
In one study, 93% of team doctors in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLS stated they use PRP injections, with the majority of the same doctors using ultrasonic guidance for correct placement of the injection (72%). Other research for PRP injection is promising and indicates improvement in the tissues of the joint, more mobility, and less pain with PRP injections.
When pain does not respond to the above treatments, including PRP injections, your doctor may suggest steroid injections. These typically use an anesthetic like lidocaine for pain and a steroid that works on pain while minimizing inflammation. Steroid elbow injections are usually only recommended when pain is refractory in an attempt to avoid more invasive surgery.
This is a treatment of last resort when pain is unrelieved by more conservative measures. Surgery may remove affected tissue, or it may be necessary to repair tears in the ligaments and tendons.
Outcomes are generally challenging with surgery, however, and the recovery period can be long.
Elbow pain when lifting can impact your daily life. If you are experiencing elbow pain when lifting or gripping, it may be time to talk to a pain specialist. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.