Elbow Pain Treatment

Elbow pain can be frustrating and proper diagnoses can be complex. Luckily, specialists in physiotherapy for elbow pain (physiotherapists) are highly skilled at helping people overcome these issues.

The elbow can be described in many ways.

One title is the forgotten joint of the upper limb, overshadowed by the much sexier shoulder and the far more practical wrist/hand.

For those who have experienced elbow pain, they often describe it as an unforgiving joint. It does not like to be injured and creates great difficulty with simple tasks such as eating and more explosive movements such as throwing.

How Common is Elbow Pain?

Tennis elbow, for example, affects 1-3% of the general population, 15% of manual workers and a whopping 40% of tennis players at any given time. 

Risk factors for developing elbow pain include:

  • Those with heavy/manual jobs
  • People who play sports such as tennis, golf and throwing
  • Systemic and lifestyle factors such as smokers, increased BMI, high cholesterol and diabetes. 
  • Decreased strength of the forearm muscles 
  • Instability issues at the elbow joint 
  • Other joint problems, such as neck, shoulder and wrist/hand issues
physiotherapy for elbow pain
physiotherapy for elbow pain

What Causes Elbow Pain?

Just like any other joint, causes can be considered as traumatic (due to an injury) or non-traumatic which is usually due to an overload issue.

Here are 4 of the most common causes of elbow pain.

1. Tendinopathy

Tendinopathy is the most common cause of all elbow pain and is due to overloading the elbow joint. This can result from gradual/repeated overload such as manual workers in a factory or a sudden burst of activity such as 2 hours of gardening at the start of spring.

The lateral tendons are most commonly affected, known as tennis elbow (common in tennis players). When the medial tendons are affected, we refer to it as golfers elbow (common in golfers).

The treatment for tendinopathy initially varies according to its severity, with nasty cases needing a period of rest, whereas more mild cases needing immediate loading. All tendinopathies will eventually need to be rehabbed through a progressive strength program. This can take anywhere from a couple of months to almost a year.

2. Trauma

Traumatic causes should be first managed by a GP/doctor/surgeon prior to coming to physiotherapy for elbow pain.

  • Fractures may need to be operated on and require a period of immobilisation/non-weight bearing.
  • Dislocations need to be reduced (put back in place) prior to rehab. Occasionally, a large force can cause significant tearing in the elbow tendons which may need to be investigated and repaired.

Once stable and given rehab guidelines by a doctor/surgeon, these conditions greatly benefit from early mobilisation and once ready a comprehensive movement and strength rehab program.

3. Nerve pain in the elbow

If you are experiencing symptoms such as numbness, pins and needles, radiating pain and/or muscle weakness, the source may not necessarily be the elbow joint itself. It could be coming from your neck or various nerves that cross the elbow joint. These conditions are treated much differently from overload issues such as tendinopathy.

Physiotherapy for elbow pain consists of a range of techniques to first decrease symptoms including hands-on treatment, education/advice and other modalities that can assist with managing day to day symptoms. Once symptoms are under control, exercises are essential in helping these people to move better and prevent future flare-ups. In rare cases, these people can present with symptoms that need urgent medical/surgical input.

Luckily, our physiotherapists in Pascoe Vale are highly skilled at identifying these clients and referring them on to the appropriate healthcare professional.

4. Arthritic conditions of the elbow

Osteoarthritis is a common cause of elbow pain in the elderly and can present as an increasingly painful and stiff joint hindering activities of daily living.

Inflammatory arthritic conditions such as Gout can also often affect the elbow joint causing painful lumps.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition which most commonly affects the hands and feet but can also cause problems at the elbow joint.

Management of these conditions involves a combination of medical management from GPs and exercise rehab from physios.

Elbow Pain Physio Treatment

Physiotherapy treatment for elbow pain varies greatly according to its diagnosis.

The majority of elbow conditions will incorporate movement and strength/loading rehab. Some adjunct treatments such as taping, bracing and hands-on treatment can be beneficial in the early stages of rehab to help decrease pain symptoms, but should not be used in isolation. 

Corticosteroid injections for 'tennis elbow'

While corticosteroid injections for tennis elbow can provide some pain relief in the short term, an increasing amount of evidence is demonstrating that patients who have cortisone injections actually end up worse and are more likely to re-present to a healthcare professional in the short and long term for the same issue.

Physiotherapy has been shown to have a significantly lower reoccurrence rate in the short-term and a higher success rate in the long-term when compared to those just receiving a cortisone injection. In fact, one study found that those who had a cortisone injection ended up worse than those that had no treatment a year down the track. 

As you can see, elbow pain is complex.

It can be tricky to know what to do with a sore elbow. In some instances, it can be good to rest. In other instances, this tends to exacerbate the problem.

What we definitely know is that the more severe the pain is on presentation to a health professional, the less likely it is to improve and the longer it will take to rehab. So don’t ignore that niggly elbow. 

If you or a loved one are suffering from elbow pain or you want to know more about preventing elbow pain, come and see one of our expertly trained and qualified physiotherapists at our PridePlus Health clinic in Pascoe Vale, for physiotherapy for elbow pain.

Book an appointment with PridePlus Physiotherapists