Elbow pain is fairly common, especially among athletes and people who use their arms for repetitive activities, like lifting. Like other joint pain, elbow pain becomes more common with age as wear and tear on joint surfaces begin to take their toll.
To find relief for elbow pain, you need to know what’s causing it. For many people, that means learning to tell the differences between pain caused by arthritis and bursitis, two relatively common sources of pain that require a different approach to treatment.
Victor Mendoza, MD, relies on his extensive experience in diagnosing and treating elbow injuries to help patients at Vulcan Pain Management find long-lasting, meaningful relief from their symptoms. If you have elbow pain, here’s what you should know about these two common causes of joint discomfort.
Elbow pain: Arthritis vs. bursitis
Both arthritis and bursitis can cause similar symptoms, so the first step in differentiating between them is understanding how they affect your elbow joint.
Basic elbow anatomy
Your elbow forms where your upper arm bone (the humerus) meets the two bones of the lower arm (the radius and ulna bones). The ends of these bones are covered with a thick layer of slippery cartilage that protects the bones and facilitates smooth movement.
A bursa is a fluid-filled sac that acts as a protective cushion between a bone and surrounding soft tissues. There are several bursae located throughout your body. The one in the elbow is located near the bony “tip’” of the elbow.
Arthritis happens when the cartilage in a joint is damaged or wears away. Most people think arthritis is a single disease, but actually, there are several types of arthritis, including:
- Osteoarthritis, the most common type, caused by wear and tear
- Rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system attacks healthy joint tissue
- Septic arthritis, caused by an infection in the joint
- Gout associated with a buildup of uric acid crystals
Arthritis causes symptoms like:
- Joint pain
- Joint stiffness or reduced range of motion
- “Locking” or “grinding” sensations in the joint
- Swelling, especially with rheumatoid arthritis
Arthritis is a chronic condition that typically gets worse over time.
Less common than arthritis, elbow bursitis happens when the bursa in your elbow is inflamed. Sometimes, bursitis is caused by an infection in the elbow joint. Other times, irritation and inflammation can be caused by a fall that causes a direct impact to your elbow.
Bursitis can also be associated with autoimmune disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis, when inflammation from the joint spreads to the bursa. Repetitive movement of the joint, like bending your arm over and over again to lift heavy objects, is another cause of bursa inflammation.
Bursitis is associated with symptoms like:
- Dull aching in the joint
- Tenderness when the elbow tip is touched or pressed
- Visible swelling under the skin near the joint
- Redness or warmth in the area
- Fever, when an infection causes bursitis
Unlike arthritis, which is chronic, bursitis clears up with proper medical care.
Treating arthritis and bursitis
The good news is, even though arthritis and bursitis can cause a lot of discomfort they typically can be treated conservatively without invasive surgery. Treatment begins with a review of your symptoms and your medical history, along with a physical exam of your elbow, diagnostic imaging, and blood tests when appropriate.
Most people with either condition benefit from treatment comprising different therapies, including:
- Physical therapy to strengthen the joint and restore movement
- Oral medicines to relieve pain and inflammation
- Activity modification and resting the joint
- Ice or heat therapy
- Steroid injections to reduce inflammation
Less commonly, a badly damaged joint or deeply infected bursa might require surgery to either repair the joint or drain an infection. When needed, Dr. Mendoza can refer you to specialists for targeted treatment, including treatment for underlying problems like autoimmune diseases.
Relief for your elbow pain
Arthritis and bursitis are just two possible causes of elbow pain. There are other causes, too. Having a medical evaluation early on ensures you get the right care to relieve your symptoms and prevent further problems.
To learn more about joint pain treatments at our Birmingham, Alabama, practice, call 205-258-7246 or book an appointment online with Dr. Mendoza today.