Causes and Treatment of Elbow Swelling
Elbow Swelling exists for several reasons. It is important to determine the cause so that treatment can begin.
First of all, is the elbow the only joint that is swollen? If the answer is no and several joints are swollen, it is likely to be caused by a systemic disease affecting the entire body. Examples of such conditions are rheumatoid arthritis, gout and congestive heart failure. Treatment of these conditions is aimed at the specific disease and not just at the elbow swelling.
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If there is only elbow swelling in one joint, the likely cause is elbow bursitis.
When there is swelling in this area, it is often known as olecranon bursitis due to the olecranon process on the end of the ulna, one of the two bones of the forearm, which rests in the olecranon fossa on the humerus, the bone of the upper arm.
The bursa is the smooth sac covering this area that allows these bones to move easily against each other. When the sac becomes inflamed, it fills with fluid causing swelling and pain to occur. In addition to the elbow swelling and pain, a limited range of motion accompanies bursitis.
Cause of Elbow Bursitis
One cause of elbow swelling or olecranon bursitis is trauma. This trauma may be severe in the case of a fall, or mild if it has developed from an activity such as continually resting the elbow on a hard surface.
Repetitive activities that cause mild trauma over and over again may cause elbow swelling. Generally, the diagnosis can be made simply with a history of trauma and examination by the physician.
If other causes are suspected, an X-ray or an MRI may be performed to make sure the bones in the joint appear normal.
If fevers, chills, sweats and redness around the joint accompany the elbow swelling, then a diagnosis of infected olecranon bursitis must be entertained.
It is important to see a doctor to make the diagnosis of an infection as antibiotics will be needed for treatment. If untreated, an infection in the joint can cause ongoing problems with the joint and even lead to serious systemic infection.
By draining the fluid from the swollen elbow and sending it for laboratory evaluation, the physician can determine if the bursitis is caused by an infection. White blood cells will be present in large numbers in an infected area. Also, a culture of the fluid can be performed to detect the specific bacteria present.
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A first line of treatment for any elbow swelling is non steroidal anti-inflammatory agents. Over the counter examples are Penetrex® – the World’s #1 OTC Anti-Inflammatory Therapy, Ibuprofen, the generic name for Motrin and Advil, and Naprosyn, the generic name for Aleve. Prescription varieties which may be less irritating to the stomach include Celebrex, Dayroom, and Relefen.
Non-Infectious Elbow Swelling
In the case of a non-infectious elbow swelling, a steroid injection may also be used to decrease the inflammation and help the joint heal more quickly. Other treatments for bursitis include decreasing usage of the elbow and padding the elbow to prevent further trauma.
Limited immobilization also facilitates healing. However, care must be taken not to immobilize the joint too much. Elbow swelling will respond to limited activity by healing, however some mobility is needed to keep the joint from becoming immobile or frozen, and hence elbow exercises can be very useful but seek medical advice about your condition before undertaking exercise.
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Tim Allardyce DO MCSP SRP