Pacific Rim Orthopaedic Surgeons

Elbow Osteoarthritis

Arthritis can develop in many areas of the body and in different forms; osteoarthritis often occurs in weight-bearing joints, like the knee, the hip, and the elbow. While it is uncommon for the elbow to develop osteoarthritis because it has strong stabilizing ligaments and joint surfaces that give it the ability to withstand large forces, it is still possible.

What is Elbow Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that is related to age, commonly called the “wear and tear” form of arthritis. It is more common in patients over the age of fifty and develops due to the cartilage that cushions the bone, becoming softer and wearing away, allowing the bones to rub against one another. Over time, the elbow joint becomes stiff, and movement becomes painful.

The bones that meet to form the elbow joint are covered with cartilage, protecting them while allowing easy movement. Also, within the elbow joint is a smooth tissue called synovial membrane, which covers all the surfaces that don’t have cartilage. In a healthy elbow, that membrane makes a fluid that lubricates the cartilage and reduces any friction created during movement. When osteoarthritis develops in the elbow, the cartilage becomes rougher and wears away, which makes the joint space more narrow and increases the friction, resulting in elbow pain. 

Elbow Arthritis Causes and Symptoms

As mentioned, osteoarthritis primarily develops from natural wear and tear that comes with aging, but the risk increases if a patient has a history of elbow injuries. While there is no direct or singular cause for osteoarthritis, there are other risk factors besides injury: 

  • middle-aged men who regularly perform strenuous physical activity like shoveling or hammering
  • history of injury or fractures to the elbow
  • a family history of osteoarthritis
  • joint reconstruction injury
  • elbow dislocation

Symptoms for elbow arthritis can vary with severity and occurrence depending on the person but generally include:

  • Stiffness in the elbow
  • Elbow pain
  • Difficulty moving the elbow, loss of range of motion
  • Bone spurs
  • Bone grating or scraping
  • Joint in the elbow locking
  • Instability in the elbow joint, the elbow feeling unstable
  • Swelling in the joint.

If the osteoarthritis has progressed significantly, numbness in the ring and pinky fingers can occur due to the swelling in the elbow. Tingling is also reported in the elbow joint due to the extra pressure on the ulnar nerve (funny bone).

Diagnosis & Elbow Arthritis Treatment

Diagnosing osteoarthritis requires a physical exam where the elbow is inspected for signs of damage and injury. The exam will also include a range-of-motion test to determine a patient’s mobility and the extent of the elbow’s instability. An X-ray may also be ordered to check for any fractures or cracks that may be causing symptoms instead of arthritis. Also, the X-ray allows the doctor to look for loss of joint space, which means cartilage loss, and bone fragments that may have broken off due to osteoarthritis. They may also order blood work to ensure there are no other causes. 

Treating Arthritis in the Elbow

To treat elbow osteoarthritis, healthcare providers take a conservative or non-surgical approach before pursuing more invasive treatments. Nonsurgical treatments include:

  • Activity restriction: avoiding activities that aggravate the joint and greater rest periods between activities
  • Physical therapy: performing gentle exercises, heat or cold therapy, to help ease the pain and reduce stress in the joint by supporting it with splints.
  • Prescription medication: steroid injections and pain medications to help ease pain in the elbow
  • Pain management: Using over-the-counter medications to reduce pain and inflammation in the joint such as ibuprofen. 

If the less invasive treatments haven’t provided relief or eased symptoms and improved overall quality of life, a healthcare provider may recommend surgery. Types of elbow surgery include:

  • Osteotomy: removing sections of the bone to ease symptoms and reduce the bone-on-bone rubbing
  • Arthroplasty: replacing the damaged joint in the affected elbow with an artificial one.
  • Synovectomy: removing damaged pieces of the synovium
  • Arthroscopy: using a small instrument to remove bone fragments, damaged cartilage, and bone spurs from the elbow joint. 

Make an Appointment with our Orthopedic Surgeons

We at Proliance Pacific Rim Orthopedic Surgeons strive to help our patients achieve a return to normal activity through compassionate and exceptional care using evidence-based medicine in a patient-friendly environment. We are committed to bringing you a high standard of care that is patient-focused, with the goal of improving your quality of life.