Learn more about elbow pain: introduction
Elbow and arm pain isn't usually a sign of anything serious. If it doesn't go away after a few weeks, see a GP.
How you can ease elbow and arm pain yourself
Try these things for a couple of days:
See a GP if:
- the pain doesn't go away after a few weeks
Get an urgent GP appointment if your arm:
- hurts when you exercise but the pain goes away when you rest
- is swollen and you have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
These can be signs of a heart problem (angina) or an infection.
Go to a minor injuries clinic or A&E if you've injured your arm and:
- it's extremely painful and difficult to move
- you have bruising and swelling
- you have tingling and numbness
- you heard a snap and your arm has changed shape
These could be signs of a broken arm and you need an X-ray.
Call 999 if:
- the pain has come on suddenly and your chest feels like it's being squeezed
Causes of elbow and arm pain
Apart from an injury, these things can cause arm pain.
Don't self-diagnose. See a GP if you're worried.
|Main symptoms||Possible cause|
|Pain, stiffness, difficulty moving, swelling||tendonitis, for example tennis elbow|
|Pain, tenderness, bruising, swelling||sprains and strains|
|Pain, stiffness coming down from the shoulder||frozen shoulder|
|Pain and stiffness in the joints||arthritis|
|Temperature of 38C or above, feeling shivery, skin broken around the shoulder||inflamed shoulder (bursitis)|
Learn more about elbow pain: tennis elbow
Tennis elbow is a condition that causes pain around the outside of the elbow.
It's clinically known as lateral epicondylitis.
It often occurs after strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint.
You may notice pain:
- on the outside of your upper forearm, just below the bend of your elbow
- when lifting or bending your arm
- when gripping small objects, such as a pen
- when twisting your forearm, such as turning a door handle or opening a jar
You may also find it difficult to fully extend your arm.
Read more about the symptoms of tennis elbow.
What causes tennis elbow?
The elbow joint is surrounded by muscles that move your elbow, wrist and fingers. The tendons in your elbow join the bones and muscles together, and control the muscles of your forearm.
Tennis elbow is usually caused by overusing the muscles attached to your elbow and used to straighten your wrist. If the muscles and tendons are strained, tiny tears and inflammation can develop near the bony lump (the lateral epicondyle) on the outside of your elbow.
As the name suggests, tennis elbow is sometimes caused by playing tennis. However, it is often caused by other activities that place repeated stress on the elbow joint, such as decorating or playing the violin.
Pain that occurs on the inner side of the elbow is often known as golfer's elbow.
Read more about the causes of tennis elbow.
When to see your GP
If your elbow pain is caused by a strenuous or repetitive activity, you should avoid the activity until your symptoms improve.
Visit your GP if the pain in your elbow persists, despite resting it for a few days. They will check for swelling and tenderness, and carry out some simple tests, such as asking you to extend your fingers and flex your wrist with your elbow extended.
Treating tennis elbow
Tennis elbow is a self-limiting condition, which means it will eventually get better without treatment.
However, there are treatments that can be used to improve your symptoms and speed up your recovery.
It's important that you rest your injured arm and stop doing the activity that's causing the problem.
Holding a cold compress, such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel, against your elbow for a few minutes several times a day can help ease the pain.
Taking painkillers, such as paracetamol, may help reduce mild pain caused by tennis elbow. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can also be used to help reduce inflammation.
Physiotherapy may be recommended in more severe and persistent cases. Massaging and manipulating the affected area may help relieve the pain and stiffness, and improve the range of movement in your arm.
Surgery may be used as a last resort to remove the damaged part of the tendon.
Most cases of tennis elbow last between six months and two years. However, in about nine out of 10 cases, a full recovery is made within a year.
Read more about how tennis elbow is treated.
Preventing tennis elbow
It's not always easy to avoid getting tennis elbow, although not putting too much stress on the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbow will help prevent the condition getting worse.
If your tennis elbow is caused by an activity that involves placing repeated strain on your elbow joint, such as tennis, changing your technique may alleviate the problem.
Read more advice about preventing tennis elbow.
Who is affected by tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow is a common musculoskeletal condition. It's estimated that as many as one in three people have tennis elbow at any given time.
Each year in the UK, about five in every 1,000 people go to see their GP about tennis elbow.
The condition usually affects adults and is more common in people who are 40-60 years of age. Men and women are equally affected.
Learn more about elbow pain: broken arm
A broken (fractured) arm or wrist needs to be treated as soon as possible. It typically takes a month or two to heal.
Symptoms of a broken arm or wrist
Learn more about elbow pain: treatment
Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments. Most can be treated at home without seeing a GP.
Check if you have a sprain or strain
It's likely to be a sprain or strain if:
- you have pain, tenderness or weakness – often around your ankle, foot, wrist, thumb, knee, leg or back
- the injured area is swollen or bruised
- you can't put weight on the injury or use it normally
- you have muscle spasms or cramping – where your muscles painfully tighten on their own
Is it a sprain or a strain?
|Torn or twisted ligament (tissue that connects the joints)||Overstretched or torn muscle (also known as a pulled muscle)|
|Most common in: wrists, ankles, thumbs, knees||Most common in: knees, feet, legs, back|
How to treat sprains and strains yourself
For the first couple of days, follow the 4 steps known as RICE therapy to help bring down swelling and support the injury:
- Rest – stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury.
- Ice – apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
- Compression – wrap a bandage around the injury to support it.
- Elevate – keep it raised on a pillow as much as possible.
To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat – such as hot baths and heat packs – alcohol and massages for the first couple of days.
When you can move the injured area without pain stopping you, try to keep moving it so the joint or muscle doesn't become stiff.
You can't always prevent sprains and strains
Sprains and strains happen when you overstretch or twist a muscle. Not warming up before exercising, tired muscles and playing sport are common causes.
A pharmacist can help with sprains and strains
Speak to a pharmacist about the best treatment for you. They might suggest tablets, or a cream or gel you rub on the skin.
Painkillers like paracetamol will ease the pain and ibuprofen will bring down swelling. However, you shouldn't take ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing.
How long it takes for a sprain or strain to heal
After 2 weeks, most sprains and strains will feel better. Avoid strenuous exercise such as running for up to 8 weeks, as there's a risk of further damage.
Severe sprains and strains can take months to get back to normal.
Go to a minor injuries unit if:
- the injury isn't feeling any better after treating it yourself
- the pain or swelling is getting worse
See a GP if:
- you also have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
These could be signs of an infection.
Treatment at a minor injuries unit
You may be given self-care advice or prescribed a stronger painkiller.
If you need an X-ray it might be possible to have one at the unit or you may be referred to hospital.
Physiotherapy for sprains and strains
If you have a sprain or strain that's taking longer than usual to get better, your GP may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist.
Physiotherapy from the NHS might not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.
Go to A&E or call 999 if:
- you heard a crack when you had your injury
- the injured body part has changed shape
- the injury is numb, discoloured or cold to touch
You may have broken a bone and will need an X-ray.