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OSTEOARTHRITIS OF THE ELBOW

In order to understand this condition it is important to understand the anatomy and function of the elbow. Please read Elbow Pain Info's section on basic elbow anatomy. For additional background information on the biomechanics of the elbow please read Elbow Pain Info's section on basic elbow biomechanics.

What is osteoarthritis?

The word arthritis means inflammation (swelling) of a joint. Osteoarthritis is the term used to describe damage to articular cartilage inside joints. Osteoarthritis, also called "wear and tear" arthritis is the most common type of arthritis.

What is osteoarthritis of the elbow?

Articular cartilage is the smooth coating that covers the surface of the bones inside the elbow. Articular cartilage also cushions and helps lubricate the joint surfaces. In osteoarthritis the articular cartilage begins to degrade. Over time the articular cartilage can thin or form cracks. Tiny pieces of cartilage may come loose and float inside the elbow, further irritating the joint. After a long period of time the cartilage can become completely "worn away" and the bones begin to rub together.

What does tennis elbow feel like?

Tennis elbow usually begins with a gradual onset of dull, intermittent in the outer part of the elbow. It may progress and develop into a sharp continuous pain. Repetitive use of the elbow or arm can increase the pain. Tenderness is often present over the lateral epicondyle of the elbow.

What does osteoarthritis of the elbow feel like?

Osteoarthritis usually comes on slowly and results in pain, stiffness and/or swelling of the affected joint. Bumps or nodes may appear around the elbow. When the elbow is moved a grating sound may be heard. Sometimes the elbow can have a mild amount of osteoarthritis and feel perfectly fine.

How is osteoarthritis of the elbow detected

Most types of treatment for osteoarthritis of the elbow work best when started early, before there is a lot of "wear and tear". For this reason establishing a correct diagnosis is very important. In some cases osteoarthritis of the elbow can be diagnosed based on the medical history and physical examination of the affected elbow. An x-ray may be ordered to determine how much joint damage there is. Other tests like bone scans or MRI's are not usually required.

What causes osteoarthritis of the elbow?

No one knows for sure what causes osteoarthritis to develop in the elbow but some risk factors include:

  • Previous elbow injury or fracture
  • Family history of osteoarthritis
  • Damage to the elbow from another type of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout
  • Increasing age

What is the treatment for osteoarthritis of the elbow?

Every osteoarthritic elbow is different, and there should be a team approach to treatment. Treatment options include exercises to improve the range of motion of the elbow, strengthening exercises for the arm muscles, medications to relieve pain and swelling, education on activity modification, heat/cold therapy, injections and in some cases surgery. Doctors and physical therapists that deal with people who have osteoarthritis can help outline a treatment program.

Is there a cure for osteoarthritis?

A lot can be done to help people who have osteoarthritis. The goal of treatment is to reduce pain, control swelling and maintain or improve mobility of the affected joints but unfortunately there is no known cure for osteoarthritis.

What other information is available on osteoarthritis of the elbow?

Joint Pain Info's links section has additional information on this topic. Links have been provided to other websites as well as online medical journals. Visit Joint Pain Info for information on other joint injuries and problems.


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