Learn more about elbow pain: introduction

Elbow and arm pain is not usually a sign of anything serious. If it does not go away after a few weeks, see a GP.

How you can ease elbow and arm pain yourself

Try these things for a couple of days:

  • put a pack of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel on your arm – do this for 5 minutes, 3 times a day
  • take painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • raise the arm if it's swollen

See a GP if:

  • the pain does not go away after a few weeks

Get advice from 111 now if your arm:

  • hurts when you exercise but the pain goes away when you rest
  • is swollen and you have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
  • is extremely painful and difficult to move
  • tingles or feels numb
  • has been injured and you heard a snapping noise or your arm has changed shape

These can be signs of a heart problem (angina), an infection or a broken arm.

111 will tell you what to do. They can tell you the right place to get help if you need to see someone.

Go to 111.nhs.uk or call 111.

Other ways to get help

Go to an urgent treatment centre

Urgent treatment centres are places you can go if you need to see someone now.

They're also called walk-in centres or minor injuries units.

You may be seen quicker than you would at A&E.

Find an urgent treatment centre

Call 999 if:

  • the pain has come on suddenly and your chest feels like it's being squeezed

These could be signs of a heart attack or stroke.

Causes of elbow and arm pain

Apart from an injury, these things can cause arm pain.

Do not self-diagnose. See a GP if you're worried.

Main symptoms Possible cause
Pain, stiffness, difficulty moving, swelling tendonitis (for example, tennis elbow)
Pain, tenderness, bruising, swelling sprains and strains
Pain, stiffness coming down from the shoulder frozen shoulder
Pain and stiffness in the joints arthritis
Temperature of 38C or above, feeling shivery, skin broken around the shoulder inflamed shoulder (bursitis)
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Learn more about elbow pain: tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is a condition that causes pain around the outside of the elbow.

It's clinically known as lateral epicondylitis.

It often occurs after strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint.

You may notice pain:

  • on the outside of your upper forearm, just below the bend of your elbow
  • when lifting or bending your arm
  • when gripping small objects, such as a pen
  • when twisting your forearm, such as turning a door handle or opening a jar

You may also find it difficult to fully extend your arm.

Read more about the symptoms of tennis elbow.

What causes tennis elbow?

The elbow joint is surrounded by muscles that move your elbow, wrist and fingers. The tendons in your elbow join the bones and muscles together, and control the muscles of your forearm.

Tennis elbow is usually caused by overusing the muscles attached to your elbow and used to straighten your wrist. If the muscles and tendons are strained, tiny tears and inflammation can develop near the bony lump (the lateral epicondyle) on the outside of your elbow.

As the name suggests, tennis elbow is sometimes caused by playing tennis. However, it is often caused by other activities that place repeated stress on the elbow joint, such as decorating or playing the violin.

Pain that occurs on the inner side of the elbow is often known as golfer's elbow.

Read more about the causes of tennis elbow.

When to see your GP

If your elbow pain is caused by a strenuous or repetitive activity, you should avoid the activity until your symptoms improve. 

Visit your GP if the pain in your elbow persists, despite resting it for a few days. They will check for swelling and tenderness, and carry out some simple tests, such as asking you to extend your fingers and flex your wrist with your elbow extended.

Further tests, such as an ultrasound scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will only be needed if it is thought that your pain is being caused by nerve damage.

Treating tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is a self-limiting condition, which means it will eventually get better without treatment.

However, there are treatments that can be used to improve your symptoms and speed up your recovery.

It's important that you rest your injured arm and stop doing the activity that's causing the problem.

Holding a cold compress, such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel, against your elbow for a few minutes several times a day can help ease the pain.

Taking painkillers, such as paracetamol, may help reduce mild pain caused by tennis elbow. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can also be used to help reduce inflammation.

Physiotherapy may be recommended in more severe and persistent cases. Massaging and manipulating the affected area may help relieve the pain and stiffness, and improve the range of movement in your arm.

Surgery may be used as a last resort to remove the damaged part of the tendon.

Most cases of tennis elbow last between six months and two years. However, in about nine out of 10 cases, a full recovery is made within a year.

Read more about how tennis elbow is treated.

Preventing tennis elbow

It's not always easy to avoid getting tennis elbow, although not putting too much stress on the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbow will help prevent the condition getting worse.

If your tennis elbow is caused by an activity that involves placing repeated strain on your elbow joint, such as tennis, changing your technique may alleviate the problem.

Read more advice about preventing tennis elbow

Who is affected by tennis elbow?

Tennis elbow is a common musculoskeletal condition. It's estimated that as many as one in three people have tennis elbow at any given time.

Each year in the UK, about five in every 1,000 people go to see their GP about tennis elbow.

The condition usually affects adults and is more common in people who are 40-60 years of age. Men and women are equally affected.

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Learn more about elbow pain: broken arm

Get medical advice as soon as possible if you think you have broken your arm or wrist. Any possible breaks need to be treated as soon as possible. It's not always clear if your arm or wrist is broken or just sprained so it's important to get your injury looked at by a healthcare professional.

Call 111 or go to an urgent treatment centre if:

You have had an injury to your arm or wrist and:

  • the injury is very painful
  • there is a large amount of swelling or bruising
  • your arm or wrist has changed shape or is at an odd angle
  • you cannot use the affected arm or wrist due to the pain

Find an urgent treatment centre

Call 999 or go to A&E if:

  • you can no longer feel the affected arm or wrist
  • you have a bad cut that is bleeding heavily
  • a bone is sticking out of your skin

Things to do while you're waiting to see a doctor

Do

  • use a towel as a sling to support the affected arm – The St John Ambulance website has more information about how to make an arm sling

  • gently hold an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel) to the injured area for up to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours

  • stop any bleeding by applying pressure to the wound with a clean pad or dressing if possible

  • remove any jewellery such as rings or watches – your fingers, wrist or hand could swell up

  • take paracetamol for the pain

Don't

  • do not eat or drink anything in case you need surgery to fix the bone when you get to hospital

  • do not try to use the affected arm or wrist

Treatment for a broken arm or wrist

When you get to hospital the affected arm will be placed in a splint to support it and stop any broken bones from moving out of position.

You will also be given painkilling medicines for the pain.

An X-ray is then used to see if there is a break and how bad that break is.

A plaster cast can be used to keep your arm in place until it heals – sometimes this may be done a few days later, to allow any swelling to go down first. You may be given a sling to support your arm.

A doctor may try to fit the broken bones back into place with their hands before applying a splint or cast – you will be given medicine before this happens so you will not feel any pain. If you had a very bad break surgery may be carried out to fix broken bones back into place.

Before leaving hospital, you'll be given painkillers to take home and advice on how to look after your cast.

Find out how to take care of your plaster cast

You'll be asked to attend follow-up appointments to check how your arm or wrist is healing.

How long does it take to recover from a broken arm or wrist?

In most cases it takes around 6 to 8 weeks to recover from a broken arm or wrist. It can take longer if your arm or wrist was severely damaged.

You will need to wear your plaster cast until the broken bone heals. The skin under the cast may be itchy for a few days but this should pass.

The hospital will give you an advice sheet on exercises you should do every day to help speed up your recovery.

Your arm or wrist may be stiff and weak after the cast is removed. A physiotherapist can help with these problems, although sometimes they can last several months or more.

Things you can do to help during recovery

Do

  • try to keep your hand raised above your elbow whenever possible; use a pillow at night to do this

  • follow any exercise advice you have been given

  • use the painkillers you have been given to ease pain

Don't

  • do not get your cast wet – waterproof cast covers are available from pharmacies

  • do not use anything to scratch under the cast as this could lead to an infection

  • do not drive or try to lift heavy items until you have been told it is safe to do so

Call 111 or go to an urgent treatment centre if:

  • the pain in your arm or wrist gets worse
  • your temperature is very high or you feel hot and shivery
  • your cast breaks, or the cast feels too tight or too loose
  • your fingers, wrist and arm start to feel numb
  • your fingers, wrist and arm look swollen or turn blue or white
  • there's a bad smell or discharge of liquid from under your cast
Content supplied by the NHS website

Learn more about elbow pain: treatment

Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments. Most can be treated at home without seeing a GP.

It's likely to be a sprain or strain if:

  • you have pain, tenderness or weakness – often around your ankle, foot, wrist, thumb, knee, leg or back
  • the injured area is swollen or bruised
  • you cannot put weight on the injury or use it normally
  • you have muscle spasms or cramping – where your muscles painfully tighten on their own
Is it a sprain or a strain?
Sprains Strains
Torn or twisted ligament (tissue that connects the joints) Overstretched or torn muscle (also known as a pulled muscle)
Most common in: wrists, ankles, thumbs, knees Most common in: knees, feet, legs, back

For the first couple of days, follow the 4 steps known as RICE therapy to help bring down swelling and support the injury:

  1. Rest – stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury.
  2. Ice – apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
  3. Compression – wrap a bandage around the injury to support it.
  4. Elevate – keep it raised on a pillow as much as possible.

To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat (such as hot baths and heat packs), alcohol and massages for the first couple of days.

When you can move the injured area without pain stopping you, try to keep moving it so the joint or muscle does not become stiff.

A pharmacist can help with sprains and strains

Speak to a pharmacist about the best treatment for you. They might suggest tablets, or a cream or gel you rub on the skin.

Painkillers like paracetamol will ease the pain and ibuprofen will bring down swelling.

But you should not take ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing.

Find a pharmacy

How long it takes for a sprain or strain to heal

After 2 weeks, most sprains and strains will feel better.

Avoid strenuous exercise such as running for up to 8 weeks, as there's a risk of further damage.

Severe sprains and strains can take months to get back to normal.

Sprains and strains happen when you overstretch or twist a muscle.

Not warming up before exercising, tired muscles and playing sport are common causes.

Get advice from 111 now if:

  • the injury is not feeling any better after treating it yourself
  • the pain or swelling is getting worse
  • you also have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery – this could be an infection

111 will tell you what to do. They can tell you the right place to get help if you need to see someone.

Go to 111.nhs.uk or call 111.

Other ways to get help

Go to an urgent treatment centre

Urgent treatment centres are places you can go if you need to see someone now.

They're also called walk-in centres or minor injuries units.

You may be seen quicker than you would at A&E.

Find an urgent treatment centre

Treatment at a minor injuries unit

You may be given self care advice or prescribed a stronger painkiller.

If you need an X-ray, it might be possible to have one at the unit, or you may be referred to hospital.

If you have a sprain or strain that's taking longer than usual to get better, your GP may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapy from the NHS might not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.

Find a physiotherapist

Go to A&E or call 999 if:

  • you heard a crack when you had your injury
  • the injured body part has changed shape
  • the injury is numb, discoloured or cold to touch

You may have broken a bone and will need an X-ray.

Content supplied by the NHS website