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Elbow Arthritis

Elbow arthritis occurs when the cartilage in the elbow becomes worn or damaged. The condition can develop from overuse due to age and repetitive activities, or as the result of an injury. For many people, arthritis of the elbow can cause pain not only when bending the elbow, but also when straightening it. If elbow pain is making it harder to do everyday activities such as carrying groceries, arthritis is likely present. 

Causes of Elbow Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common cause of elbow arthritis. It is a disease of the joint linings, or synovia. As the joint lining swells, the joint space narrows and gradually destroys the bones and soft tissues. RA usually affects both elbows, as well as other joints like the hands, wrist, and shoulder. 


Osteoarthritis is more common in weight-bearing joints such as the knees and hips, but it can also affect your elbows. It happens when you lose the cartilage that cushions the joints, causing the bones to rub together. 

Post-traumatic Arthritis

Post-traumatic arthritis is caused by an injury, like a fracture or dislocation, to the elbow joint and leads to progressive deterioration of the joint. These include fractures of the distal humerus, radial head fractures, and olecranon fractures. 

Symptoms of Elbow Arthritis

Common symptoms of elbow arthritis may include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Instability
  • Grinding, popping, or cracking of the elbow joint
  • Locking
  • Stiffness or decreased range of motion
  • Tingling 
  • Numbness in your ring and pinky fingers

How is Elbow Arthritis Diagnosed?

During a physical examination, your Raleigh Orthopaedic physician will first look for swelling, redness, and tenderness around the elbow joint. They will also look at the range of motion and identify what positions cause pain to your elbow. They may order imaging tests such as an X-ray to look for narrowing of the joint and any loose bodies (bony pieces). If your pain is due to arthritis following an injury, the X-ray may show an improper joining or failure to join the elbow bones.

Treatment for Arthritis of the Elbow

Treatment for elbow arthritis will depend on several factors, including the cause of your arthritis. In most cases, conservative treatments are helpful to decrease pain and improve elbow function. 

Non-surgical Treatment

  • Heat and ice. Heat can be helpful in loosening joints and relaxing stiff muscles, while ice is generally effective for flare-ups and swelling at the end of the day.
  • Cut back on activity. Avoiding certain activities or sports, or having periods of rest after exercise involving your elbow can relieve stress on the joint. 
  • Anti-inflammatory medications. Drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen can be taken to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Physical therapy. Rehabilitation exercises can help you avoid stress on your elbow and build strength and mobility.


You may be a candidate for elbow arthritis surgery if your elbow pain interferes with your daily life and conservative treatments do not provide relief. The specific type of surgery may depend on the type of arthritis, the stage of your disease, your age, and your expectations. Discuss options with your Raleigh Orthopaedic surgeon to determine the best treatment path based on your condition. 


Using a few small cuts around the elbow joint, your surgeon will insert thin instruments to remove pieces of bone, cartilage, or damaged tissue. Arthroscopic surgery allows for less pain and scarring and faster recovery. This procedure can be used with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.


During synovectomy, your surgeon will make a larger incision to remove bone spurs or damaged areas from the lining of the joint (synovium). This procedure is often used in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis.


In severe cases, your surgeon may create an artificial joint using an internal prosthesis or external fixation device. Arthroplasty, or total joint replacement, is usually reserved for patients over 60 years old or patients with RA in advanced stages. 

Comprehensive Treatment for Elbow Arthritis at Raleigh Orthopaedic

Each of our Wake County clinics at Raleigh Orthopaedic offer elbow specialists with comprehensive care and advice for your elbow condition, including elbow arthritis. We will work with you to understand your symptoms and provide an effective treatment plan that addresses all of your needs. To learn more about our services or to schedule an appointment, please contact us today. 

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