The most common type of elbow arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, which causes joint lining, or synovium, swelling and joint space narrowing. Rheumatoid arthritis progressively destroys the bones and soft tissues of both elbows and other joints of the body, in particular hand and wrist joints.
Osteoarthritis is the second most common arthritis of the elbow joint. It affects the cushioning cartilage on the ends of elbow joint bones (humerus, radius and ulna) that enables them to move smoothly in the joint. Osteoarthritis occurs when the elbow joint cartilage is damaged as a result of previous injury, or normal wear and tear process as we age. As the cartilage is destroyed, the bones begin to rub against each other and cause pain.
Pain in both elbows and other joints is a sign of rheumatoid arthritis . In the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis , pain may be primarily on the outer side of the elbow joint and it may get worse as you extend your arm. Pain at rest or that continues during the night is indicative of a more advanced stage of osteoarthritis. Swelling of the elbow joint is more common with rheumatoid arthritis. In cases of advanced elbow osteoarthritis, patients may experience numbness in their ring and small fingers due to increased pressure on the ulnar nerve by the swelling on the inner (medial) side of the elbow. Patients with osteoarthritis usually complain of “grating” or “locking” sensation in the elbow as well as joint instability, which makes it difficult to do normal daily activities. Limited range of motion where you are not able to straighten or bend the elbow may be experienced in both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
A detailed history including medical conditions, activities that aggravate elbow use, and any prior injuries is important. During a physical examination, your doctor will look for tenderness and swelling, limited range of motion as well as identify positions which cause pain to your elbow joint. X-ray will be taken to evaluate the extent of joint damage and to check for any evidence of fractures. By the time elbow arthritis can be seen on x-rays, there has been significant damage to the elbow joint surface. Some forms of rheumatoid arthritis can be confirmed by a blood test.
Treatment options depend on the severity of elbow arthritis symptoms and patient’s overall medical health.