The elbow is complex. It consists of three bones, the joints between them, the ligaments that keep it stable, and the muscles that generate strength and motion.
Elbow problems can be caused by overuse, traumatic injury, and/or naturally occurring changes in your body. These include:
- Less common causes – infection, tumors, or nerve problems
Suffering from elbow pain? Contact us to learn about treatment options.
How Your Elbow Works
The elbow consists of three bones:
- The upper arm bone (humerus; and
- Two forearm bones – the ulna and the radius.
The ulna runs on the bottom of your forearm from the wrist to the elbow, and is used to rest your arms. Its U shape holds the bottom of the upper arm bone (humerus). The radius rotates around the ulna. The radius and ulna are responsible for turning the palm of your hand up and down.
Two ligaments in the elbow help provide stability but are commonly injured in sports or via trauma:
- The radial collateral ligament stabilizes the outside of the elbow; and
- The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) provides stability to the inside of the elbow.
The UCL is more commonly injured; it can be stretched by throwing or racket-type sports.
Four main muscle groups surround the elbow joint and help power the elbow and wrist:
- The biceps muscles on the front of the humerus bend the elbow.
- On the backside of the humerus, the triceps muscles straighten the elbow.
- Wrist flexor tendons attach on the outside of the elbow.
- Wrist extensors attach to the inside.
These muscles help the hand turn palm-up and palm-down, and bend and straighten the elbow.
Two main nerves, the ulnar and radial nerves, can cause pain in the elbow and numbness/weakness in the hand.
The ulnar nerve travels behind the inside of your elbow and is responsible for the zinging pain down into your hand when you hit your funny bone. This nerve provides feeling for your little finger and half of your ring finger on the palm side of the hand.
The radial nerve travels through the muscle of your forearm and provides some sensation to the back of your hand, but primarily powers the muscles in the forearm and hand.
Some elbow conditions may require surgery, especially if conservative treatment options haven’t been successful. For example, tendon tears may need surgery to remove or repair damaged tissue and restore strength.
Some elbow surgeries can be done arthroscopically, with your surgeon placing their surgical instruments through two small incisions to make repairs. An arthroscope causes less harm to healthy tissues and greatly reduces recovery time compared to traditional surgery.
Arthroscopic surgery can treat:
- Bone spurs
- Cartilage damage
- Tendon tears
Often, surgery can address multiple elbow conditions at one time.
After Elbow Surgery
Right after surgery, you’ll be asked to make a fist and use your forearm muscles to increase blood flow and help prevent blood clots. This is important, since your activity level will decrease after surgery.
On average, it takes most patients four to six weeks before they’re back to daily activities; however, it can take six months to a year before they no longer notice any elbow pain.
Conditions Where Surgery May be Necessary
Your elbow joint is where your upper arm bone (humerus) and forearm bones (ulna and radius) meet. These bony surfaces are covered by smooth, hard cartilage.
Cartilage defects or flaps can cause your elbow to have a painful catch or click, which can limit motion and make it hard to straighten your arm.
Relatively small defects can sometimes be polished and smoothed with gentle motion exercises, like using an arm bike with no resistance. Severe hard-cartilage damage may require surgery to remove the unstable tissue flap.
An elbow chondroplasty arthroscopically removes fraying or flapped hard cartilage and smooths down remaining tissue.
After this procedure, you’re often placed in a sling and can wean from it as tolerated. Your surgeon will outline your post-surgery restrictions.