Arthritis in Elbows: Treatment Tips and Exercises for Pain Relief

Learn about arthritis in elbows and get tips to manage the pain, plus simple exercises from physical therapists to feel better.

an-old-man-holding-his-elbow-in-pain

Arthritis in Elbows: Treatment Tips and Exercises for Pain Relief

Learn about arthritis in elbows and get tips to manage the pain, plus simple exercises from physical therapists to feel better.

an-old-man-holding-his-elbow-in-pain

Arthritis in Elbows: Treatment Tips and Exercises for Pain Relief

Learn about arthritis in elbows and get tips to manage the pain, plus simple exercises from physical therapists to feel better.

an-old-man-holding-his-elbow-in-pain

Arthritis in Elbows: Treatment Tips and Exercises for Pain Relief

Learn about arthritis in elbows and get tips to manage the pain, plus simple exercises from physical therapists to feel better.

an-old-man-holding-his-elbow-in-pain
Table of Contents

Maybe you’ve noticed it’s become a bit harder to carry your groceries. Or you find that you’re cutting short a game of tennis or avoiding pitching baseballs to your kids in the backyard. If these scenarios sound familiar, you may be dealing with elbow arthritis.

Caleb Wolters, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health
The good news is that while arthritis can progress over time, there are plenty of things you can do to improve function and pain.

Read on to learn more about what you can do to help manage pain caused by arthritis in elbows, including exercises from Hinge Health physical therapists so you can get back in the swing of things (literally).

Our Hinge Health Experts

Caleb Wolters, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Wolters is a Hinge Health physical therapist and a board-certified orthopedic specialist.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.

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What Is Elbow Arthritis?

Elbow arthritis results in changes to the elbow’s cartilage over time. While it’s most common in men in their 40s or 50s, it can affect anyone. 

Your elbow is considered a hinge joint, and it’s made up of three bones: 

  • Humerus, or upper arm bone

  • Ulna, the forearm bone on the pinky finger side

  • Radius, the forearm bone on the thumb side

The surfaces of these bones, where they meet to form your elbow joint, are covered with cartilage that helps them move smoothly. When that cartilage wears down, it can cause stiffness and pain.

During the early stages of elbow arthritis symptoms, you may notice pain with activity. You may also notice that your elbow feels stiff or becomes harder to move. You may experience a locking sensation, says Dr. Wolters. In later stages, you may see swelling, and even have periodic numbness in some of your fingers. This occurs because a swollen elbow joint can put pressure on the ulnar nerve, aka the funny bone, which travels all the way down your arm into your hand.

Elbow Arthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective

Elbow arthritis can be a real Catch-22: It hurts to engage your elbow, so you’re less likely to want to move it, but if you don’t stay active you may set yourself up for even more discomfort down the line. “Don’t underestimate the power of general exercise to decrease any type of joint pain, including elbow arthritis,” says Dr. Wolters. “Going for a simple walk and getting your heart rate up can reduce irritation and inflammation everywhere in your body, including your elbow. This may help reduce elbow pain enough that you can tolerate more specific exercises.”

As Hinge Health physical therapists say, movement is medicine. And the treatment needed for arthritis in elbows is no exception. General activity and more targeted, gentle exercises (more on that below), can play a big role in allowing you to maintain and improve your range of motion alongside increased mobility and flexibility at the elbow joint. 

Ideally, you’ll want to find your movement sweet spot — this allows you to engage in the right type and amount of movement and exercise that challenges your body and pain system, and also strengthens your muscles and reduces your pain in the long run. So while you may need to modify certain activities as you build back strength and reduce inflammation caused by arthritis in the elbows, the goal is that you don’t have to stop doing the things you enjoy.

What Causes Arthritis in Elbows

Anyone can develop elbow arthritis, especially since it’s a condition that occurs more frequently with age. But there are a few things that may make you more susceptible:

  • Past injury. If you’ve had a past injury to your elbow, like a fracture or a dislocation, it may have impacted some joint cartilage, leaving you more susceptible to developing osteoarthritis. The same is true if you’ve ever had a tear in the ligaments or muscles around your elbow — the injury may have put more stress on your elbow joint as it tried to compensate.

  • Your job. If your line of work places a lot of strain on your elbow, it could potentially contribute to changes in your elbow joint and inflammation over time. Not surprisingly, people who do manual labor or play certain sports like baseball or tennis are more susceptible to elbow arthritis.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis. This is an autoimmune condition where your immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of your joints. It can cause joint pain, swelling, and inflammation in any joint, including your elbow. It usually impacts joints symmetrically, which means both elbows are likely to be affected.

  • Gout. This is a condition that causes pain and joint swelling. It’s triggered by the build up of crystals in the joint. While it often occurs in the big toe, it also commonly shows up in elbow, wrist, and finger joints too. You may also notice that the skin around your affected joint is red and shiny.

Treatment Options for Arthritis in Elbows

Most of the time, elbow arthritis can be managed conservatively, and at home. The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can provide relief for elbow arthritis:

  • Targeted exercises. While it might feel uncomfortable to move your elbow, keeping it active is important. “Exercise helps to maintain the health of your elbow cartilage and keeps the area loose and lubricated, so it’s less painful,” says Dr. Wolters. (See the next section for more specific stretching and strengthening exercises you can do at home.) Working with a physical therapist can also help. A PT can identify exercises you can do with less discomfort, plus show you ways to move the joint so that you can continue to engage in daily activities. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Anti-inflammatory medication. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers in the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) class, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can help treat elbow arthritis pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history. Another option: an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory cream such as Voltaren. It contains an NSAID, but since it’s applied topically, there’s less risk of side effects.

  • Ice and/or moist heat. Ice can help to relieve inflammation and swelling, says Dr. Wolters. It’s a good idea to alternate it with heat, like a warm towel or a hot water bottle. “The heat will increase blood flow to the area, which will make your elbow joint easier to move, and less stiff,” says Dr. Wolters.

  • Elbow splint. It can provide temporary support to your elbow joint, which may be helpful if you’re having a bad flare-up of your arthritis. “The splint will allow you to move the joint without as much pain,” says Dr. Wolters. Night splints may also help to restrain the elbow while you sleep. But don’t forget to spend time out of the brace — you still need to strengthen the tendons in your elbow in order to build tolerance and reduce pain.

  • Corticosteroid injections. Talk to your doctor to determine if a steroid injection may be an option to temporarily relieve pain if you find your pain is intense, lasts longer than expected, and interferes with your ability to do elbow exercises. 

Note: If your elbow arthritis is due to a form of inflammatory arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor should refer you to a rheumatologist. Certain medications, known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), have been shown to be very effective in preventing your immune system from attacking your joints.

Exercises for Arthritis in Elbows

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This move, where you bend and straighten your elbow, helps to improve elbow range of motion. “It decreases joint inflammation because it moves fluid in and out of your joint and helps it to stay as healthy as possible,” says Dr. Wolters.

These exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to help manage the symptoms and pain of arthritis in elbows. “The goal is to increase strength and maintain or preserve as much elbow range of motion as possible in order to minimize stress on that joint,” says Dr. Wolters. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment. 

PT Tip: Mind Your Diet

What you eat can impact inflammation throughout the body. “Aim to eat more plants and vegetables and less sugar and processed foods,” says Dr. Wolters. “This can decrease the amount of total body inflammation and make you less sensitive to the discomfort caused by arthritis in elbows. This should allow you to tolerate more specific elbow exercises with less pain.” 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Martinez-Catalan, N., & Sanchez-Sotelo, J. (2021). Primary Elbow Osteoarthritis: Evaluation and Management. Journal of Clinical Orthopaedics and Trauma, 19, 67–74. doi:10.1016/j.jcot.2021.05.002

  2. Ravalli, S., Pulici, C., Binetti, S., Aglieco, A., Vecchio, M., & Musumeci, G. (2019). An Overview of the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Elbow Osteoarthritis. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, 4(2). doi:10.3390/jfmk4020030

O’Connor, F.G. August 31, 2023. Evaluation of elbow pain in adults. UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/evaluation-of-elbow-pain-in-adults

Table of Contents
What Is Elbow Arthritis?Elbow Arthritis: A Hinge Health PerspectiveWhat Causes Arthritis in ElbowsTreatment Options for Arthritis in ElbowsPT Tip: Mind Your DietHow Hinge Health Can Help YouReferences