Osteoarthritis of the elbow

This information is about osteoarthritis of the elbow. There are other forms of arthritis that may affect the elbow joint including Rheumatoid Arthritis and Psoriatic Arthritis. These are inflammatory conditions and require diagnosis and management by a specialist healthcare practitioner.

Osteoarthritis is a process that involves wear and repair of the bones at a joint. The elbow can be affected by osteoarthritis but it is less common than in other joints. If you have previously broken a bone at the elbow, it can increase the chance of developing osteoarthritis in the joint.

Osteoarthritis is a common condition and is thought to affect around 9 million people in the UK. The arthritis charity, Versus Arthritis has produced a short video that explains more about osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis tends to affect women more than men and usually affects people over the age of 45. Obesity can increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis, especially in joints that bear weight (such as hips and knees).

Joints are usually covered in a smooth substance called cartilage. In osteoarthritis, the cartilage becomes roughened and the joint may not move as easily. As the body tries to repair itself, the structure of the tissues around the joint can become altered. This may lead to pain, swelling or difficulty moving the affected joint.





Common symptoms in elbow osteoarthritis include:

  • Pain that comes on gradually – initially this is often felt when your elbow is fully bent or fully straight, but may happen with any movement of the joint
  • Limited movement of the joint – especially straightening the elbow
  • Stiffness after a long period of rest, such as first thing in the morning. This tends to last less than 30 minutes
  • Noises (such as clicking or crunching) coming from the joint as you move it.


If you have either been diagnosed by a healthcare practitioner with osteoarthritis of the elbow or think that you may have it, there are some simple things that you can do to help manage your symptoms:

Activity modification

It is important to keep your elbow, wrist and hand moving and keep using the arm as this can reduce the risk of the elbow becoming stiff and muscles weak.

However, it can be useful to modify activities that increase your pain. For example:

  • Avoiding lifting heavy items such as shopping bags, a full kettle or things in the garden. Reduce the weight by only half filling the kettle or by splitting weight between more bags
  • Reduce repetitive gripping and twisting movements, such as using a screwdriver
  • Reduce the use of tools that create vibration through the arm, such as drills.

If you have to continue with activities that increase your pain (for example for work), try to break up the aggravating movements with rest or with movements that do not cause pain.

Pain relief

Paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen may be useful to help reduce your pain. Please see current information about paracetamol and NSAIDs on the NHS website.

Remember to always follow the instructions on the packet and speak to a pharmacist to discuss safe use of medication, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

Using heat or ice

Using heat over the affected area such as a warm shower, wheat pack or hot water bottle may help relax muscles.

Using ice over the area may also help reduce pain. Never apply ice directly to the skin as it can cause an ice ‘burn’. Instead wrap an ice pack or frozen peas in a damp cloth and place over the area for 10-15 minutes.

When using heat or ice as a treatment make sure you:

  • Check your skin regularly
  • Stop if there is increased pain, tingling or numbness.

If you have any circulatory problems or altered skin sensation, you should be cautious about using these treatments.


It is important to keep your elbow moving through the range of movement that you have. This will help to reduce the chance of the joint getting stiffer and the muscles around the joint from getting weaker. Exercising ‘little and often’ is key. Sometimes exercises may make your pain worse whilst you are doing them. This does not mean that you are causing damage. Try to balance being active and having periods of rest.

There are a range of stretching, movement and strengthening exercises available on the Versus Arthritis website.

Aerobic activity is also beneficial. This is exercise that raises your heart rate and can make you breathe more heavily. General exercise such as walking or using an exercise bike can be helpful. Aerobic activity burns more calories, so may also help you to maintain a healthy weight.

When should I seek help?

Osteoarthritis can be painful, but most people are able to continue their general activities by following simple management advice. If your pain or limited movement is impacting significantly on your ability to carry out your usual activities, your quality of life or your wellbeing, please speak to a physiotherapist or other healthcare practitioner for further support, advice and to consider other options for management of your condition.

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