Your elbow is a body joint that is in constant use over your life. How can you protect it from the effects of time and being in use?
Your elbows take a lot of punishment. As a major joint of the body, they are designed to be in use for a lifetime, but even the most efficiently designed joint wears out over time. Add to that the various types of injury and diseases that affect the joints and it’s clear that during your life you have to take steps to protect your elbows.
To start with, your elbows stick out. When you fall you tend to protect your body with them, making them prone to injury. They are also the main pivot point of your arm, taking the strain of all the lifting and manual work you do with your hands. Overuse and injury gradually take their toll.
In young people, elbow injuries are mostly sport or activity related. Falls that involve landing on the hand or the elbow directly result in fractures, usually to the point (or the olecranon process) of the elbow. Landing flat on the extended elbow usually results in dislocation of the joint.
In later life, the potential for fractures increases as your bones become more brittle, and minor injuries resulting from pulling or falling can now have unexpected and serious results. For example in the elderly, a fracture of the point (olecranon) of the elbow can result from a simple pull of the triceps and brachioradialis muscles that flex the arm.
Some of the more common injuries are muscular in nature. Lateral and medial epicondylitis (better known as tennis elbow and golfers elbow) are what is called muscular overload injuries. These can occur after relatively minor trauma to the muscles that extend (tennis) or bend (golfer’s) the elbow.
As far as disease goes, the elbow is prey to anything that affects the joints, arthritis being the main culprit. Arthritis is any one of a number of diseases that cause painful inflammation of the joints. For example, osteoarthritis is caused by injury or aging but a related disease, rheumatoid arthritis, is caused by a weakened immune system.
Or perhaps you may suffer from bursitis. This is caused by trauma or overuse of the elbow that damages the bursa, a small fluid filled cushion that sits in the joint. Another painful condition is tendonitis; an inflammation of the tendons, again often caused by overuse or aging but there can be other reasons. As you can see the majority of elbow pain conditions are a product of repetitive use or use over time.
The treatments for elbow pain vary depending on the cause. If there is inflammation to the elbow then you may be taking some kind of anti-inflammatory medication, or perhaps applying it to the skin. You may also need to support your arm while the medication takes effect.
If the problem is temporary or minor it may be as simple as applying an ice pack. But in extreme cases you may have to have physiotherapy, corticosteroid injections into the joint or shock wave therapy to bring any kind of relief. If that doesn’t help then the only answer may be surgery, but these days that’s a last resort.
It’s well known to doctors that helping the body heal itself is the best option, especially with complicated structures like elbow joints. All in all, it’s best to avoid elbow pain in the first place by taking action to prevent it.
If you are a sports person then you will already know it’s a good thing to wear protective clothing while playing. If you have former injuries it’s especially vital that you wear support clothing to prevent a relapse and boost your confidence so you can play in safety.
Your doctor will tell you that to avoid elbow pain you should strengthen and exercise your arms, but also make lifestyle adjustments too. As with all bone and muscle pain prevention, regular, if possible daily, exercise is to be recommended.
Do exercises that strengthen your wrist, arm, shoulder, and back muscles. All areas of your torso are connected and support each other. If the whole system is strong then the joints will be protected and strong too.
Your exercise regime should involve exercises that improve your range of motion, stretching your tendons and preventing stiffness. For strengthening muscles and tendons all over your body, it’s hard to beat yoga as regular exercise. You should however consult your doctor if you already have severe elbow injuries before embarking on a course of yoga.
Exercise and Lifestyle
During your daily exercise, especially if using gym equipment, make sure you are using correct technique to reduce strain. Make sure you are trained in the use of gym machines before you exercise, and also ensure the machines are the right size for you and are adjusted to your height where necessary.
In your daily life, avoid leaning on your elbow for extended periods. It’s easy to get into habits, like leaning your face on your hand and planting your elbow on your desk while looking at a computer screen. These are not good habits to get into. When you notice yourself doing them, adjust your position or take a break.
Similarly, avoid repetitive movements over long periods of time. Change your pace or your angle, or alternate hands when gardening or doing chores. Repetition can cause overuse injuries to the bursa and tendons.
Talk to your doctor about support clothing, like elbow sleeves and slings, both to protect existing injuries or to prevent new ones. If you include a sport in your regular exercise, use elbow support sleeves and straps to protect and cushion your elbow during strenuous activity.
You must be guided by your doctor as to the use and duration of using such appliances, but used correctly they can speed your recovery and protect you from further injury.
- Our range of elbow support products covers all types of injuries
- The Physical Therapy section of About.com has some terrific exercises tailored to strengthen elbows.
- The Hughston Clinic in Georgia has a suite of exercises it calls the Super 7 for tennis elbow rehab.
Kaki Zell - Vice President of Sales, Marketing, eCommerce at Legs-4-Life LLC Kaki holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and Management from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She’s been working in the medical device industry for over 11 years and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Greensboro Science Center.
Written July 2013 | Page Last Updated January 2022
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Rheumatoid Arthritis” https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/rheumatoid-arthritis.html
Mayo Clinic. “Cortisone Shots” https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cortisone-shots/about/pac-20384794
MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. “Aging Changes in the Bones” https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/004015.htm
National Institutes of Health. “Resistant Tennis Elbow: Shock-Wave Therapy Versus Percutaneous Tenotomy” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2551723/
National Institutes of Health. “Why is Osteoarthritis an Age-Related Disease?” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818253/
Physiopedia. “Physiotherapy Management of the Elbow” https://www.physio-pedia.com/Physiotherapy_Management_of_the_Elbow
Summit Orthopedics. “Lateral and Medial Epicondylitis” https://www.summitortho.com/services/elbow/lateral-and-medial-epicondylitis/