Posted 4/30/2018 by UHBlog
If your elbow is in pain and you fear the worst, see us. We can help with preventing and treating elbow injuries.
Sharp inside elbow pain may elicit immediate thoughts of the dreaded Tommy John surgery and the accompanying long rehabilitation period that follows. Chances are, however, that the pain may signal a less severe injury.
Most commonly associated with baseball pitchers, Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) means the loss of at least one season on the mound. Fortunately, says sports medicine specialist James Voos, MD, who serves as head team physician for the Cleveland Browns, most athletes' inside elbow injuries result in significantly less downtime.
“Sports fans always hear on the news about the UCL, or the Tommy John ligament,” Dr. Voos says. “The UCL is typically injured in young throwers, like baseball pitchers or javelin throwers who repeatedly throw in an overhead motion. More commonly, however, there are two other things that can cause pain on the inside of the elbow – and both are usually treatable with some rest and a modified level of activity.”
Those injuries are:
Elbow tendonitis, commonly called “golfer's elbow,” is inflammation or a strain of the flexor pronator muscle.
“Most people have heard of tennis elbow, a condition of overuse that causes pain on the outside of the elbow,” Dr. Voos says. “Golfer's elbow inflames the tendons on the inside of the elbow. It's very common in athletes who golf or lift weights or even in people who do a lot of work in their yard.”
Throwing an object creates force on the inside of the elbow, Dr. Voos says.
“If it gets sore, it's most likely from inflammation,” he says. “The people who tear their UCL typically have a traumatic episode where they feel a pop after a throw and are unable to throw again.”
Inflammation of the ulnar nerve – or the funny bone nerve – is less common than elbow tendonitis. It tends to become aggravated in people who do a repetitive motion, such as assembly line work, or in people who rest their elbow on a hard surface for a long period of time.
“The ulnar nerve tunnels through a grove between the two bones in your elbow,” Dr. Voos says. “When it gets inflamed you may feel pain in the elbow, but more often, you'll feel an electrical sensation down the inside of your arm and into your ring and small fingers. Occasionally, the ulnar nerve will get so inflamed that it pops out of groove and may require a procedure to put it back in.”
Both of these injuries result primarily from overuse of the elbow.
Fortunately, says Dr. Voos, elbow tendonitis and ulnar nerve inflammation are usually relatively easy to treat.
“They very rarely require surgery,” he says. “There are injections that can help, but the main treatment is modification of activity. If you're a golfer, golfer's elbow won't necessarily prevent you from playing, but you probably will be advised to play less after a short period of rest. Ulnar nerve inflammation usually can be corrected by changing ergonomics to take the pressure off your elbow. Both conditions can be helped a lot with just a few visits to a physical therapist or a sports medicine doctor.”
According to Dr. Voos, you can reduce the risk of elbow injuries by properly stretching and warming up before participating in an athletic activity. If you're an athlete starting a new season, working with an athletic trainer or a sports medicine doctor is a good way to get started.
“This is one of those cases where an ounce of prevention goes a long way,” he says.
James Voos, MD is an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine director at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, and head team physician for the Cleveland Browns. You can request an appointment with Dr. Voos or any other doctor online.