What is Arthritis of the Elbow?

  • Osteoarthritis of the elbow occurs when the cartilage surface of the elbow is damaged or becomes worn.
  • This can happen because of a previous injury such as elbow dislocation or fracture.
  • The elbow is one of the least affected joints because of its well matched joint surfaces and strong stabilizing ligaments.

Arthritis, a complex group of musculosketal disorders that can affect people of all ages, races and genders. Arthritis involves the wearing out of cartilage in joints or the inflammation of membranes lining the joints. The three most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid and juvenile. Osteoarthritis in the spine can cause stiffness and pain in the neck or in the lower back. Cervical arthritis (cervical spondylosis), affects the upper spine and neck. Lumbar (lumbosacral arthritis) affects the lower back and pelvic area. Ankylosing spondylitis is another type of spinal arthritis.

Our Treatment Approach

Options for treatment depend on prior history, the stage of the disease, what the patient desires, overall medical condition, and the results of X-rays.

Nonsurgical Treatment

The most common treatment is nonsurgical, if in the early stages. This includes anti-inflammatory medications to reduce or alleviate pain, physical therapy, and activity modification.

Sometimes corticosteroid injections are used to treat osteoarthritis symptoms. Steroid medication has typically been used with good results.

An alternative to steroids are injections of hyaluronic acid in various forms, called viscosupplementation. Viscosupplementation involves injecting substances into the joint to improve the quality of the joint fluid.

Surgical Treatment

When conservative treatments are not enough to control symptoms, surgery may be necessary. If the arthritis can be seen on X-rays, significant wear or damage to the joint surfaces has already occurred. If the wear and damage is limited, a minimally invasive surgical treatment may be an option for patients with earlier stages of arthritis.

Patients state that minimally invasive surgery does provide symptom improvement at least in the short term. It involves removing any loose bodies or inflammatory/degenerative tissue in the joint. Your doctor may also try to smooth out irregular surfaces. Several small incisions are used to perform the surgery. It can be done as an outpatient procedure, and recovery is usually quick.

If the joint surface has worn away completely, joint replacement may be the only option to bring pain relief. There are several different types of elbow joint replacement available.

Causes

Osteoarthritis of the elbow occurs when the cartilage surface is damaged or becomes worn. This can happen because of an injury such as a fracture. The degeneration of the joint cartilage from age may also be a factor. Osteoarthritis usually affects the weight-bearing joints, such as the hip and knee. The elbow is one of the least affected joints because of its well matched joint surfaces and strong stabilizing ligaments.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of elbow arthritis are:

  • Pain
  • Loss of range of motion

These symptoms may not occur at the same time. Patients usually report a “grating” or “locking” feeling in the elbow. The “grating” is because of the loss of the normal smooth joint surface, caused by cartilage damage or wear. The “locking” is caused by loose pieces of cartilage or bone that dislodge from the joint and become trapped between the moving joint surfaces, blocking full-range of motion.

As the disease progresses, joint swelling may also occur, but this does not usually happen at first.

In the later stages of osteoarthritis of the elbow, patients may have numbness or tingling in their ring and pinky fingers. This can be caused by swelling or limited range of motion in the joint. If the elbow cannot be moved through its normal range of motion, it may stiffen into a position where it is bent (flexion).

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