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What is Elbow Arthritis?

By Madeleine A.
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Elbow arthritis refers to a medical condition caused by inflammation of the elbow joint. Typically, this condition causes swelling, pain, and limited mobility. In addition, morning stiffness and inability to straighten the elbow may also be present. Typically, one the most common causes of elbow arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis. Commonly, injuries and osteoarthritis can also cause elbow arthritis, however, the symptoms and manifestations are similar.

Typically, diagnosing arthritis of the elbow depends on a physical examination, and complete medical history. The physical examination may reveal swelling and tenderness on the elbow joint, along with redness and warmth. In addition to the physical examination, x-rays may be recommended. Generally, in the presence of elbow arthritis, x-rays may reveal narrowing of the joint and loose bodies, or bony pieces. Occasionally, when arthritis is the result of an injury, x-rays may indicate improper joining of elbow bones.

Non-surgical treatment of elbow arthritis generally includes limited activity, pain management, and physical therapy. Common medications include anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen, and corticosteroids. Sometimes, medications that suppress the immune system and anti-malarial agents are recommended. Physical therapy can be effective in reducing pain and restoring mobility. The application of either cold or heat to the affected joint, along with therapeutic exercises can often significantly restore range of motion.

Occasionally, when non-surgical treatments are ineffective, surgical intervention may be necessary. One common surgical procedure that is effective in relieving symptoms of elbow arthritis is synovectomy, which refers to the removal of the affected synovium. Another common procedure is arthroscopic surgery, which entails using small instruments to remove diseased fragments through a series of small incisions. This minimally invasive procedure significantly reduces recovery time and reduces the risk of infection.

Generally, non-surgical treatments for elbow arthritis are effective in minimizing symptoms, however, because it can be a chronic condition, arthritis treatment may need to be ongoing. During flare-ups, it is often recommended that activities be curtailed, because failure to do so may cause an exacerbation in the condition, making symptoms more resistant to treatment. With proper medical management and intervention, elbow arthritis can frequently be well tolerated and sometimes even be asymptomatic.

As other medical conditions can mimic the symptoms and manifestations of arthritis of the elbow, it is important that a definitive diagnosis be made. When a diagnosis is questionable, further evaluation may be necessary, such as blood tests. Certain conditions, such as gout can masquerade as arthritis of the elbow, and should be ruled out. When gout is present, blood tests often reveal elevated levels of uric acid. Elevated uric acid levels can cause painful joints, including the elbow and great toe.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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