Elbow Pain When Lifting: Possible Causes & Treatment

The elbow is a well-used joint because of its need whenever moving the arm. However, many people may find that they start to experience elbow pain when lifting and gripping, which can make most daily tasks difficult. Many cases of elbow pain are due to repetitive strain injuries, but other causes of pain can result from acute injury. 

Serious cases of elbow pain are typically accompanied by deformities, snapping sounds, and difficulty moving the elbow, wrist, hand, or fingers. These symptoms require immediate medical attention. However, an online doctor can check non-serious elbow pain and can help discuss the cause of the pain and the best treatment. 

Symptoms Of Elbow Pain When Lifting Something 

Elbow pain when lifting may be sharp, dull, throbbing, or persistent. It may also be accompanied by:

  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • numbness
  • tingling
  • weakness

What Can Cause Elbow Pain When Lifting Objects? 

There are many potential causes for elbow pain when lifting or gripping objects. Some cases of elbow pain are due to repetitive strain, which can gradually injure the elbow joint until it reaches a point where the pain is felt. 

Other causes of elbow pain are types of acute injury. In some cases, elbow injuries go unnoticed initially but will worsen and produce symptoms as the elbow continues to be used. 

Elbow injuries can result in both inner and outer pain when lifting. The inner elbow is the space between the forearm and bicep, where blood is typically drawn, and the outer elbow is the bony aspect of the elbow on the backside of the arm. 

Pinched Nerve 

The nerves surrounding the elbow can become pinched, and in some cases, the action of lifting, and the muscles that contract in response, can further irritate and press on the nerve. 

Pinched nerves cause symptoms that include:

  • weakness in the arm, wrist, or hand
  • tingling
  • numbness

The location of the symptoms can help determine the nerve pinched. 

The ulnar nerve is located near the elbow, and when it becomes compressed, someone suffers from cubital tunnel syndrome. Irritation of the ulnar nerve can occur from repeated strain to the elbow or trauma to the area. 

Another condition is pronator teres syndrome, which occurs when the median nerve is trapped by the pronator teres muscle located on the front of the forearm. Symptoms of this condition include aching in the forearm, wrist, or hand. 

Both of these nerves, when pinched, cause inner elbow pain. 

Tennis Elbow

Lateral epicondylitis is more often referred to as tennis elbow because it is common in tennis players due to their frequent use of the elbow. It typically manifests as outer elbow pain when lifting.

Tennis elbow results when the tendons surrounding the bone of the elbow swell or tear. It produces symptoms such as sharp pain, aching sensation on the outer elbow, and swelling. The symptoms will often worsen when performing actions involving gripping, twisting, or lifting. 

Despite the name tennis elbow, tennis players are not the only individuals to develop it; for example, those with professions in building and painting perform similar actions as tennis players and are thus also more susceptible to tennis elbow. 

Fractured Elbow

Fractured elbows occur when the humerus, ulna, or radius break near the elbow, which most often happens when the elbow collides with something at high speed.

When the elbow fractures, there may be an audible snapping sound that occurs at the time of injury, and then there could be numbness and weakness in the lower part of the arm. 

Fractures can be open or closed based on if the bone pierces the skin (open fracture) or does not (closed fracture). Open fractures are more severe than closed fractures.

Dislocated Elbow

A dislocation is another condition that results from injury to the elbow and occurs when the upper arm bone is separated from or forced out of alignment with the forearm bones. This condition is common in those who fall and use their arms to catch themselves. 

Dislocated elbows have similar symptoms to fractured elbows, such as the inability to move the lower arm and loss of feeling. However, these symptoms are more common in dislocated elbows because they are more likely to damage surrounding blood vessels and nerves. 

Arthritis

Two types of arthritis that can affect the elbow are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. 

Osteoarthritis causes a deterioration in the cartilage of joints, which allows the bone to rub against each other.

With rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune condition, the immune system attacks the joints and causes swelling, inflammation, and pain. 

Symptoms of both types of arthritis include:

  • stiffness
  • pain that worsens when bending or straightening the elbow
  • inability to move the elbow a certain way

Treatment For Elbow Pain When Lifting 

There are many at-home remedies that can help relieve elbow pain. However, some conditions do not respond to at-home remedies or need more advanced treatments offered by a doctor. 

Stop Lifting

If lifting objects or gripping worsens elbow pain, take a break from these activities while the elbow heals. In many cases, taking a break from the repetitive action is enough to allow the elbow to heal and no longer cause pain. 

Use A Brace

Braces offer support to the joint they are used on. When used with the elbow, it can help relieve some of the strain placed on the elbow when moving it, which can help reduce pain and further damage. 

Exercise Your Elbow

For those with tennis elbow, some exercises can help relieve pain, including:

  • wrist turns
  • wrist turns with weight
  • wrist lift, palm up
  • elbow bend
  • wrist extensor stretch/flex
  • fist squeeze
  • towel twist

For those looking for guidance on when and how to do these exercises, a physical therapist is a great resource to walk you through the movements and create a rehabilitation plan based on the current state of your elbow pain and mobility. 

Apply Ice (or Heat)

If there is swelling or pain in the elbow, try applying some ice to help reduce inflammation. Apply ice for 20 minutes at a time, multiple times a day. Continue this ritual until swelling does not return. 

The one caveat to this involves those with arthritis. If your elbow pain resembles stiffness and is from arthritis, it is best to apply heat as this will ease stiffness and make it easier to move the joint. Similar to icing, apply heat for 20 minutes at a time, multiple times a day. 

Medication

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as aspirin and ibuprofen can help to reduce swelling and pain in the elbow. Be sure to follow the dosing instructions on the package and any additional instructions from your doctor. 

Steroid Injections

For those whose chronic pain is not relieved with the above at-home methods, steroid injections are another way to help repair damage to the elbow. A doctor can help determine if this treatment method is a good choice. 

How Do I Know If My Elbow Pain Is Serious? 

Elbow pain that is serious is often sharp and immediate, especially following a fall or other accident. Other serious symptoms that you should not ignore include an inability to move the wrist, hand, or fingers or difficulty twisting or bending the elbow. 

Another sign of serious elbow pain is if there was a snapping sound at the time of an injury and visible deformities of the elbow. These can be signs of a fractured elbow, which requires immediate medical attention. 

When Should You See a Doctor for Elbow Pain? 

While the above at-home remedies often help many with elbow pain, it is important to consult a doctor if swelling, pain, or limited mobility continues. Ignoring any persisting symptoms can lead to further complications. 

It is also crucial to see a doctor immediately if there is any deformity in the elbow, particularly after it has experienced trauma. 

Get Help from An Online Doctor 

An online doctor is an excellent resource for those with elbow pain that is aggravating but not serious. With apps such as DrHouse, you can meet with a virtual doctor in as little as 15 minutes to discuss your elbow pain and its potential causes. Your doctor can observe any mobility problems and swelling while also listening intently to your symptoms. With all this information, your doctor can suggest a treatment and prescribe medication if needed. 

Key Takeaways 

The elbow is used consistently in everyday life due to its location on the arm. We use the elbow immensely when lifting or gripping objects, which may cause pain in some individuals due to an underlying cause. In most cases, this pain is due to repetitive strain and, if caught early, can easily be treated at home. 

The most helpful at-home treatment involves resting the elbow and avoiding lifting or gripping until it has healed. However, some more serious causes of elbow pain, including arthritis or trauma, often cannot be healed through these at-home methods. 

If elbow pain is severe or accompanied by difficulty moving the elbow, wrist, hand, or fingers, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention. For those with elbow pain that is persistent but not severe, an online doctor is a great resource to get to the bottom of your elbow pain and begin purposeful treatment specific to your condition.

Sources

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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