Elbow Arthritis

Photo of man clutching his elbow

Elbow Arthritis

There are several forms of arthritis. The most common form of arthritis in the elbow is osteoarthritis, which is what many people might think of as “wear and tear arthritis”.

There are many less common types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, also commonly involving the elbow in people with these conditions. In osteoarthritis, the joint surfaces lose part of their smooth cartilage leaving areas of bone-on-bone. Extra prominent areas of bone can develop at the edge of the joint surfaces. These are called osteophytes, and can also limit the motion in the elbow. Osteophytes can break off and float free within the elbow causing pain, stiffness and locking (the elbow motion is restricted in one or both directions, for a temporary period, because something feels like it is stuck in the joint). Osteoarthritis is common especially in people who have undertaken heavy labour for many years. Some people develop osteoarthritis in their elbows but get little in the way of problem symptoms. One feature of osteoarthritis is a progressive degree of loss of the ability to fully straighten the elbow. This can come on so slowly without pain or function problems, that sufferers do not even realise they have lost some motion. Other people may suffer from pain, stiffness, weakness and locking of the elbow.
Graphic showing an elbow Arthroscopy

How can you treat arthritis in the elbow?

Most people with mild elbow osteoarthritis will find little benefit from treatment. Others find that painkillers when required and limiting activities that cause symptoms are two practical methods of managing symptoms.

If your arthritis is more troublesome at times steroid injections, physiotherapy or occupational therapy can be useful, but its application is much less relevant compared to hand and shoulder problems. If stiffness or pain is marked, then arthroscopic removal of loose bodies, portions of the osteophytes and at the time some of the elbow joint capsule, can improve your elbow function and symptoms. If elbow arthritis is very bad, elbow replacement surgery may be considered for a limited group of people.

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