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Osteoarthritis of the elbow

What is it?

Osteoarthritis is a wear and repair process and can affect the elbow, however, this is less common than other joints. It can lead to joint pain with limitation of movement, this can affect daily activities.  Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, affecting approximately 9 million people in the UK. In general people who have osteoarthritis of the elbow can manage well and can continue with activity and exercise without many problems.

Versus arthritis have produced a summary of ‘What is Osteoarthritis?’

In osteoarthritis we see changes to the cartilage of the joint as well as other secondary changes such as inflammation. Cartilage helps our joints move freely. Changes to the cartilage can lead to pain, stiffness, and loss of movement. This can in time lead to weakness around the muscles of the joint.

It most commonly affects people older than 45 and is more common if have a family history of it, overweight or have previously injured the joint in question. Osteoarthritis has varying degrees on functional limitation and effect on quality of life. Contrary to popular belief it does not affect everyone as you get older and does not necessarily get worse.

What are the common symptoms of Osteoarthritis of the elbow?

Symptoms of osteoarthritis of the elbow may include gradual onset of pain and limited movement of the joint. There is often a restriction in fully straightening the elbow. Other symptoms include stiffness first thing in the morning for less than 30 minutes. Noises coming from the joint (crepitus) on movement is also common.

How to manage it?

If you think you have or have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the elbow from a healthcare professional there are several things you can do to help manage your symptoms and to stop them from worsening.

Do exercises and stretches to keep the joints healthy and stimulate the natural lubricating fluid, keep it moving through as much of the range of movement that is available to you. It is important to get a balance of exercising and rest. By exercising the elbow in this way you will not make the symptoms worse. You can improve your symptoms.


Bend and straightening your elbow

Sitting or standing – Slowly bend your elbow and then straighten it.

Repeat x 10. Rest for a minute. Repeat x 3

Rotation at the wrist and elbow

Start with your elbows bent. Clasp your hands together. Turn your palm towards the floor and then back towards the ceiling. You can use the other hand to assist.

Repeat x 10. Rest for a minute. Repeat x 3

Wrist flexion and extension

Rest your forearm on a table with your hand over the edge. Using your wrist only, move your hand down towards the floor, and then back up towards the ceiling in a patting motion.

Repeat x 10. Rest for a minute. Repeat x 3

Making a fist

Support your elbow on a table make a fist bend your fingers into your palm as tightly as you can and feel them stretching. Now stretch your fingers as wide as you can and feel them stretching.

Repeat x 10. Rest for a minute. Repeat x 3

Bicep curls

Sitting or standing – hold on to a small weight, such as a can of beans or bottle of water. Bend and straighten your elbow.

Repeat x 10. Rest for a minute. Repeat x 3

Rotation with a small weight

Sit or Stand with one elbow bent and palm turned up. Hold on to a small weight such as a can of beans or bottle of water. Turn your palm down by rotating your forearm

Repeat x 10. Rest for a minute. Repeat x 3

Wall press up

Now put your hands on the wall as if you are going to do a press up. Make sure your hands are placed a little wider than the width of your shoulders, your hands are turned out slightly and your elbows are below your shoulders.

Now lower your body towards the wall keeping your body nice and tall.

Repeat x 10. Rest for a minute. Repeat x 3

Simple painkillers

Painkillers like paracetamol will ease the pain, but need to be taken regularly in order to control the pain. Always follow the instructions on the packet.

Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can help with swelling, and therefore help you move more freely. Topical (applied directly on the affected body area) anti-inflammatories are recommended initially. Follow the instructions on the packet and discuss using them safely with a pharmacist, especially if you have any underlying health conditions

However, you should not take ibuprofen for 48 hours after an initial injury as it may slow down healing.

Up to date guidelines can be found on the NHS website:



Other medicines can help to reduce inflammation, swelling and pain. You should discuss this with your GP if the simple pain relief advice does not help or if you are needing to take ibuprofen for more than 10 days.

Ice or heat therapy 

Heat may be helpful in the form of a hot water bottle, wheat pack or hot shower. This can help to relax the muscles around your elbow and may allow exercises to be more effective.

For ice therapy use a damp cloth containing an icepack (or bag of frozen peas) over the top of the painful area to help numb the pain. Leave it on for up to 20 minutes and use up to three times a day.

  • You should be cautious using these treatments if you have altered skin sensation or circulatory problems.
  • Check the skin regularly during and after the ice pack application
  • Stop if there is excessive pain, numbness or tingling
  • Do not put ice directly on to the skin as this may cause a burn.


If you find that you are not improving, some advice or treatment from a physiotherapist can be helpful in managing elbow pain. Visit the patient self referral form to self-refer to a physiotherapist.