Regardless of age or profession, elbow injuries are extremely common in the wider population. The elbow is a flexible and functional joint that we use to carry out many everyday activities, which heightens the risk of stress and impact on the elbow that can lead to injury.
Let’s discuss some of the most common elbow injuries and conditions, and how they are treated.
Anatomy of the Elbow
The elbow is a hinged joint that consists of three bones: the humerus, ulna, and radius. These are the bones of the upper arm and forearm. The joining points of each bone have a film of cartilage that acts as shock absorption and allows the joints to slide against one another.
It also contains muscles, tendons, and ligaments that carry out different tasks. The muscles of the forearm connect to the muscles of the upper arm, and provide stability to the arm and elbow, as well as dictating hand and wrist movements.
The bicep and tricep tendons connect our muscles to these bones and allow bending and flexing of the elbow joint. The ligaments hold the humerus and ulna together and act as a stabilizing force for the elbow. There are three major ligaments in the elbow: the medial collateral ligament on the inside of the elbow, the lateral collateral ligament on the outside, and the annular ligament.
Most Common Elbow Injuries
Elbow injuries tend to fall into three categories: bone injuries, nerve injuries, or soft tissue injuries, which affect the ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
There are many different types of injuries that can afflict the elbow, but these are the most common injuries seen by orthopedic surgeons.
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, happens when the muscles of the forearm are overused, usually by repetitive motions of the wrist and arm. It occurs when these muscles are strained and develops tears and inflammation. Pain from the tennis elbow can be felt on the inside of the elbow and running down the forearm.
Despite its name, this condition is not exclusive to tennis players or athletes and can affect anyone who partakes in activities that require repetitive motion in this area, such as painters and plumbers. Tennis elbow is extremely common – it is the most common cause of elbow injury symptoms in the US population, for both men and women.
Similar to tennis elbow, golf elbow (known clinically as medial epicondylitis) also occurs due to overuse of the wrist and forearm. However, pain occurs on the inside of the elbow, where the forearm tendons meet the inner part of the elbow joint. The pain can travel from the elbow and down the forearm to the wrist.
Golfers’ elbow also leads to strain and tears in the muscles and can affect anyone who repeatedly uses their wrists and clenches their fingers during activity. While it is still a fairly common elbow injury it is much less common than tennis elbow, with the latter occurring 5-10x more frequently than the former when epicondylitis is diagnosed.
A bursa is a small sac of fluid found near the olecranon, the bony tip of the elbow. The olecranon bursa act as a cushion between the olecranon and the skin. When prolonged pressure or a heavy blow is applied to the olecranon bursa, it can become irritated, inflamed, and very sore. This is known as bursitis or elbow bursitis.
Elbow bursitis is most often caused by trauma to the pointy tip of the elbow, usually when someone falls while playing sports, or when leaning the elbow against hard surfaces while working or studying.
There are three major ligaments in the elbow, all of which can be torn or strained, but the most commonly injured elbow ligament is the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). The UCL runs along the inner side of the elbow, and it can be injured through stress, overuse, or a traumatic blow.
It is most often torn by repeated overarm movements like throwing, hence why it is a relatively common injury amongst baseball pitchers, javelin throwers, and other athletes. UCL injuries can range from sprains and inflammation to complete tears.
Olecranon fractures occur when the bony tip of the elbow is fractured or broken. The olecranon is one of the three bones in the ulna, and it is the most likely to be injured since it is not protected by the muscles of the arm, only by a layer of skin.
These fractures usually result from a fall or a sharp blow to the elbow. They are common and typically occur individually but can sometimes be the result of a more widespread injury. An open olecranon fracture can also occur where the broken or fractured bone breaks through the skin, requiring immediate medical attention.
Possible Treatments For Elbow Injuries
Depending on the type of injury and its severity, an elbow injury can be treated in a number of different ways. Elbow injury treatments tend to fall into two categories: surgical and non-surgical.
Non-surgical treatment can include:
- Over-the-counter pain medication
- Physical therapy
- Casts or splints for an elbow fracture
- Ice application
- Compression with elbow sleeves or wraps
While most elbow injuries will not require surgery, it may be necessary if the injury is in a certain area or particularly severe. Different surgical treatments will be required for each kind of elbow injury. Again, keep in mind that not all elbow injuries are the same, and potential treatments can vary quite widely depending on whether you are dealing with an olecranon fracture or golfers elbow, bursitis or UCL injury, and so on.
Remember that the elbow is a complex part of the body, and there are more ways that it can be injured beyond what is mentioned above.
Whether you’ve sustained elbow injuries from a fall or from high-impact sport, our team at Kellie Middleton MD can help. Based in Atlanta, GA, we specialize in orthopedic surgery, physical therapy, and pain management. You can fill in our contact form here or give us a call at 770-509-4030 to book your first consultation.