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Elbow osteoarthritis: What is it?

Elbow osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that affects the elbow joint, causing pain, stiffness, and limited motion.

The elbow is a complex joint that allows for a wide range of arm movements, making it an important part of daily living. As a result, elbow osteoarthritis can have a negative impact on a person’s quality of life.

Osteoarthritis is a widespread condition that affects around 1 in every 4 persons in the United States. Although it can affect any joint, it usually does not affect the elbow.

Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis of the elbow, drugs, exercise, and surgery can help a person live a pain-free life with optimal joint function.

Continue reading to discover more about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of osteoarthritis of the elbow.


Elbow osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis can damage any joint in the body, but the elbow is usually unaffected because of its solid ligament arrangement, which allows it to withstand large forces. Progressive wear affects the tissues in the joints, particularly the spongy, protecting cartilage that shields the ends of the bones, resulting in the condition. The bones rub against one other, causing pain, swelling, and deformity.

Osteoarthritis is more prone to occur as people get older. It mainly affects people over the age of 50. Certain circumstances, however, can raise an individual’s risk, including:

  • obesity
  • overuse
  • family history
  • injury or surgery to a joint
  • joints that are not well-formed

Furthermore, males are more likely than females to develop elbow osteoarthritis without having previously sustained an injury.


People with elbow osteoarthritis may suffer a variety of symptoms, but the most common are discomfort and limited range of motion, which may or may not occur at the same time.

As the healthy, smooth joint surface wears away, people may experience a grating feeling in their elbow. As loose fragments of bone and cartilage become dislodged and prevent mobility between the moveable joint surfaces, they may feel as though the joint is locking.

As the disease advances, the elbow joint may enlarge, but this is usually not the first sign. People may eventually develop numbness in their ring and little fingers as the elbow swells and compresses the ulnar nerve on the inside of the elbow. Furthermore, if a person’s elbow cannot move through its full range of motion, it may stiffen in a bent posture, exerting pressure on the ulnar nerve.


Doctors diagnose elbow osteoarthritis based on a patient’s symptoms, physical exam, and imaging.

During the physical examination, the doctor searches for evidence of injury and evaluates the elbow’s range of motion and stability. They may then ask for routine X-rays to check for arthritic changes. The majority of people do not require CT or MRI imaging.

The doctor can diagnose osteoarthritis by looking at specific X-ray findings. These are some of them:

  • Joint space narrowing: The joint space between the ends of the bones narrows as osteoarthritis tears away the articulate cartilage. As the disease advances, the joint space shrinks until there is no space left and the bones rub against each other.
  • Bone spurs: Osteophytes are the medical term for protrusions of bone and cartilage. As cartilage seeks to heal itself as joints degenerate, X-rays can identify bone spurs.
  • Subchondral sclerosis: Subchondral bone is the layer beneath the cartilage, and sclerosis indicates that the tissue is hardening. On X-rays, areas of increased bone density near the articular surfaces of the bone indicate subchondral sclerosis.
  • Subchondral cyst formation: The hyaluronic acid that lubricates the joints is mostly contained in these fluid-filled sacs that develop at the joints.
  • Subluxation: Osteoarthritis can cause partial displacement of a bone as joints become unstable.

Blood tests may be ordered by a doctor to rule out rheumatoid arthritis or other problems.

Surgery and treatment

Osteoarthritis has no known cure. As a result, treatment focuses on reducing the severity of symptoms and the impact of elbow osteoarthritis on a person’s life. If drugs, exercises, and other therapy are ineffective, doctors may propose joint fusion or replacement.


Pain and inflammation can be relieved with over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications. These medications include:

  • Analgesics: These pain relievers range from OTC acetaminophen to potent prescription-only opioids.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Many people use these medications to relieve pain and inflammation. They include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen.
  • Counterirritants: These OTC products contain ingredients that irritate the nerves, such as capsaicin, menthol, or lidocaine. The purpose is to generate cold or warm feelings to distract from the pain of arthritis.
  • Corticosteroids: A doctor can prescribe these anti-inflammatory medications as oral tablets, or they can deliver them via injections at their clinic.
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP): These injections ease pain and inflammation, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved them. Therefore, a person must discuss the possibility of this therapy with a doctor.
  • Other medications: The FDA has approved the antidepressant duloxetine (Cymbalta) and the anti-seizure drug pregabalin (Lyrica) to treat osteoarthritis-related pain.


Physical activity is frequently recommended by doctors as part of an osteoarthritis therapy strategy. An exercise regimen for elbow osteoarthritis should increase joint mobility and reduce stiffness while also strengthening the muscles surrounding the elbows.

The activities below may assist people with elbow osteoarthritis reduce pain and maintain joint mobility:

  • Elbow bend: Slowly bend one arm at the elbow until the hand meets the shoulder, then hold for up to 30 seconds with arms by your sides. To create further resistance, hold a weight.
  • Wrist flex: Straighten one arm in front of you, palm facing down, and then bend the wrist down. Using the opposite hand, gently press the hand against the body. After 30 seconds of stretching, straighten your wrist. Next, gradually bend the hand up and backward toward the body for 30 seconds while holding it in place with the other hand. For each hand, repeat three times.
  • Wrist turn: Hold the hand out with the palm facing up, bending the elbow to form a straight angle. Then, with the palm facing down, turn the wrist. Hold the hand in this position for 5 seconds before releasing it. Increase the number of repetitions to 30 by taking a short pause after each set of ten. This exercise can also be performed with a light weight.
  • Palm lift: To push down on the knuckles, place the palm on a level surface and the other hand sideways across them. Lift the fingers of your lower hand and feel the forearm muscles tense up. After then, switch hands and do the exercise again.


If lifestyle changes and medications fail to control an individual’s osteoarthritis-related pain, doctors may propose surgery. Surgery can aid in the improvement of function as well as the reduction of pain.

Elbow surgery can be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • Synovectomy: Doctors call the membrane that lines the joint capsule the synovium. During this procedure, a surgeon removes this thin layer of inflamed tissue.
  • Arthroscopy: If an individual has bone spurs or loose pieces of bone, a surgeon can remove them during an arthroscopy.
  • Arthroplasty: This technique uses a piece of the person’s Achilles tendon to cover the ends of the worn joint surfaces.
  • Joint replacement: A surgeon replaces the damaged parts of the elbow with a prosthesis.


The outlook for someone with elbow osteoarthritis is determined on their unique symptoms and the level of joint function loss.

Some people are unaffected by the condition, while others have a significant handicap that makes it difficult for them to function on a daily basis.

Joint replacement surgery may be the best long-term solution for some people.


The typical wear-and-tear process of aging can cause osteoarthritis in the elbow. Pain, restricted movement, and swelling of the joint are all possible symptoms of this condition.

Although there is no cure for osteoarthritis of the elbow, doctors may recommend frequent physical activity as well as drugs such as anti-inflammatories and corticosteroids to help the body cope.

A doctor may offer surgery to help manage pain and maintain joint mobility if other therapy approaches fail.


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Obianuju Chukwu

She has a degree in pharmacy and has worked in the field as a pharmacist in a hospital. Teaching, blogging, and producing scientific articles are some of her interests. She enjoys writing on various topics relating to health and medicine, including health and beauty-related natural treatments, the nutritional worth of various foods, and mental wellness.