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Determining the Cause of Your Elbow Pain

Maybe your elbow pain came on quickly, after a fall or tackle. Or it may have developed gradually so you didn’t notice it until you experienced pain when bending it to lift up a cup of coffee or a heavy suitcase.

You don’t realize how much you use your elbow until it becomes painful. Elbow pain interferes with daily activity, workouts, and sports. At Maryland Orthopedic Specialists with offices in Bethesda and Germantown, Maryland, our board-certified orthopedists evaluate your elbow pain and offer treatment to get you relief.

Here are some of the factors we look for when determining the cause of your pain.

Anatomy of the elbow

Your elbow is made up of three bones, ligaments to help maintain stability, the joint to enable bending, and muscles that allow for strength and motion. Problems with any of these parts of the elbow could be the reason for your pain.

As your pain makes clear, you use your elbow all the time, so it’s especially vulnerable to overuse injuries. It’s also important for activities such as throwing. Some of the muscles around the elbow generate motion in the wrist, too. 

Your elbow can also be damaged during sports play or due to traumatic injury. If nerves in the area become trapped or irritated, they may also cause pain.

Tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis

Sports, hobbies, and jobs that require repetitive elbow and wrist movements may be responsible for your pain. Suspect something like tennis elbow or another form of tendinitis if you are consistently doing the same movement over and over. Pitchers, golfers, and painters are susceptible.

The pain may be most noticeable on the outside of your upper forearm, just below the bend of your elbow. Lifting or bending your arm aggravates your pain as does gripping small objects or twisting your forearm, such as when you open a jar.

Olecranon bursitis

When the small sacs of fluid in your joint, known as the bursae, are irritated, you get pain in the elbow. You may suffer this due to a blow to your elbow, arthritis, or a long time leaning on your joint. If you have swelling, pain, and difficulty moving the joint, suspect bursitis.


Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can be responsible for your elbow pain. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cushioning tissue, known as cartilage, wears down. An old elbow injury or aging causes osteoarthritis. You notice pain and reduced range of motion as symptoms. The joint may make a grating sound as you move it.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition. You notice reduced mobility and have periods of instability in the joint. Pain occurs mostly on the outer side of the joint.

Elbow fracture

If you fell on an outstretched arm, it’s possible you fractured one of the bones at the elbow. You may notice discoloration, swelling, and an inability to move the joint.

Sometimes, a bone isn’t broken after a fall but merely dislocated. In these cases, a member of our expert team can put the bone back in place.

Ligament problems

The ligaments provide the elbow joint with stability, but if they’re overstretched or torn — either partially or fully — pain ensues. A hint that you damaged a ligament is a popping sound that occurs at the time of injury. You have pain, swelling, problems with a range of motion, and joint instability.

Osteochondritis dissecans

Osteochondritis dissecans describes a condition in which small pieces of cartilage and bone become dislodged in the elbow joint. This condition often occurs after a sports injury. 

You may experience pain and tenderness on the outside of your elbow and have trouble fully extending the joint.

Evaluation of your pain

If your elbow pain is intense and severe or lingers and doesn’t go away after a few days, make an appointment at Maryland Orthopedic Specialists. We do image tests, such as X-rays and MRIs, to help determine the cause of your pain. We also evaluate your symptoms to get a better idea of what’s causing your elbow dysfunction and pain.

Maryland Orthopedic Specialists is available for all your orthopedic needs. Call us to set up your appointment or book using our online system, whether it’s your elbow, shoulder, knee, or wrist that’s injured.

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