Osteoarthritis of the Elbow

The elbow joint consists of the joining of three bones: one from the upper arm (humerus), and two from the forearm (ulna and radius). Each of these bones has a very distinct shape and the ligaments, which are strong bands of tissue, hold these bones together in proper alignment. The elbow is both a ball-and-socket joint as well as a hinge joint, allowing the elbow to bend (flexion) and straighten (extension) as well as enable the hand to rotate palm-up (pronation) and palm-down (supination).


Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and occurs when the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones wears down over time. It’s often called a degenerative joint disease where the cartilage experiences a significant amount of wear and tear over a long period of time, generally occurring in individuals over the age of 50. Osteoarthritis typically affected weight-bearing joints such as the hip or the knee and the elbow is the least affected joint as the surfaces of the joints are typically well matched and the stabilizing ligaments are quite strong. However, if an individual has previously dislocated an elbow or fractured one of their bones that forms the elbow joint, they are at a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis of the elbow as the cartilage surfaces may have sustained previous damage.


Individuals who suffer from osteoarthritis of the elbow may experience the following symptoms:

  • Pain and stiffness in the elbow joint that worsens with activity
  • An inability to or difficulty in moving the elbow joint
  • Swelling or inflammation of the joint
  • Overall instability or a locking sensation of the elbow joint


Osteoarthritis of the elbow is generally diagnosed upon a physical examination and imaging studies. After discussing symptoms and any prior injury that may have occurred, the physician will examine the elbows for obvious signs of injury or damage and test the range of motion to evaluate the mobility of the joint. The physician will also order X-rays to check for fractures that may be causing the symptoms and to look for bone spurs or loose bodies and other arthritic changes.



In early stages of osteoarthritis of the elbow, the most common approach to treatment is non-operative:

Rest – It is advised to decrease or completely stop the activity that makes the pain worse. A great way to stay active while allowing the symptoms to subside is to switch to low-impact cross-training activities.

Medication – Over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen and naproxen usually help reduce pain and swelling. If these are deemed insufficient by your physician, they might prescribe stronger medication to relive pain and reduce inflammation.

Physical Therapy – Physical Therapists will often prescribe specific strengthening and range of motion exercises that promote healing and help recover as much mobility in the elbow joint as possible. It is crucial that these exercises be done accurately and routinely to optimize recovery of the elbow joint.

Steroid Injections – Injecting the elbow joint with cortisone, a powerful anti-inflammatory medicine, might aide in decreasing pain and improving symptoms in the early stages of osteoarthritis.

Surgery – When non-operative treatments have been exhausted and are insufficient to control the symptoms, the physician may recommend an operative approach. The exact procedure will vary based on the extent of damage the osteoarthritis has caused to the elbow joint and the amount of pain the individual is in. Not all individuals are candidates for surgery; therefore options must be discussed extensively with the physician to determine the appropriate operative treatment and procedure.


Each patient is unique and their recover will depend on the treatment method prescribed by the physician. If surgery is deemed necessary for the osteoarthritis of the elbow, recovery will depend on the severity of the condition and the complexity of the procedure.



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