Inner Elbow Pain: Causes, Seriousness, Relief

Inner Elbow Pain: Causes, Seriousness, Relief

From raising a fork to throwing a ball or turning a doorknob, your elbow gets a lot of use during everyday activities. Injury or irritation to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, or nerves that support the elbow joint can often cause inner elbow pain.

This pain often stems from overuse and repetitive stress but can sometimes develop in response to injury or inflammation, such as golfer’s elbow or arthritis. Fortunately, treatments can improve symptoms and help you find relief.

A complex network of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves converge at the inner elbow to support the elbow joint.

The forearm muscles (flexor muscles) are responsible for flexing the wrist and fingers. They attach to the bony bump on the inner elbow (medial epicondyle). Ligaments provide stability to the joint, and tendons connect muscles to bones and provide further support. The ulnar nerve runs through the inner elbow, providing sensation to the forearm and hand.

Overusing these joints and muscles or injuring the structures in the inner elbow area can cause pain. Depending on the cause of your inner elbow pain, you may have constant discomfort that lingers throughout the day or pain that comes and goes or worsens during activities that involve gripping, flexing, lifting, or throwing. The pain may feel like:

Inner elbow pain often develops due to overuse or acute injury to the tissues that support the elbow joint. Underlying health conditions that cause inflammation can also lead to pain in your inner elbow area.

Medial Epicondylitis

Medial epicondylitis, or golfer’s elbow, is the most common cause of inner elbow pain. It develops when the tendons in your inner elbow become irritated and inflamed. Repetitive use of the muscles in your forearm that attach to the bones inside your elbow can cause small tears in the tendons. Over time, the tendons become irritated, causing symptoms such as: 

  • Pain that runs down the inside of your forearm to your wrist 
  • Discomfort that occurs when you flex your wrist or shake your hands
  • Weak grasp in your hands
  • Numbness and tingling from your elbow down to your pinky and ring fingers 

This condition is common in people who play sports that involve overuse of muscles that support gripping, twisting, or throwing—such as golf, tennis, baseball, and strength training. Occupations that require wrist-twisting movements, such as painting, construction, and computer work, can also increase your risk of developing medial epicondylitis. 

Biceps Tendonitis

Biceps tendonitis causes inflammation of the biceps tendon, the strong band of tissue that connects the biceps muscle to the radius bone in the forearm. This condition commonly develops in people who engage in repetitive lifting activities, such as weight lifting or moving heavy furniture. Symptoms of biceps tendonitis can include:

  • Pain and soreness around the inner elbow that may radiate down your forearm 
  • Swelling around the bicep muscle and inner elbow 
  • Difficulty bending your elbow or twisting your forearm 
  • Weakness in your forearm

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome 

Cubital tunnel syndrome is the compression or irritation of the ulnar nerve, which runs through a narrow passage on the inner elbow (known as the cubital tunnel). If you’ve ever smacked your elbow against a hard surface (e.g., “hit your funny bone”)—and felt a shock-like tingling sensation, you’ve hit your ulnar nerve. 

Because the ulnar nerve runs through such a small space of the elbow, it can easily become compressed and cause cubital tunnel syndrome symptoms such as: 

  • Weakness and tingling in the fingers
  • Sharp or aching inner elbow pain 
  • Pain that worsens when you bend your elbow
  • Hand numbness
  • Difficulty gripping objects, typing, or writing

Anyone can develop cubital tunnel syndrome, but it is most common in people who engage in repetitive elbow bending movements, such as baseball pitchers, people with elbow arthritis, or those with a history of elbow injuries, such as dislocations or fractures. 

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Sprain

The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) connects your upper arm bone (humerus) to the bone in your forearm (ulna), which helps stabilize the inner side of your elbow joint. However, a sprain can occur when repetitive motions or an acute injury tears the ligament, leading to inner elbow pain. UCL ligament sprain symptoms include:

  • A “popping” sound followed by inner elbow pain
  • Inner elbow pain that worsens during overhead movements, such as throwing a ball or bending your elbow 
  • Tenderness or soreness when touching the inner elbow 
  • Numbness and tingling in the pinky and ring fingers

Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD)

Osteochondritis dissecans is a joint disorder that occurs when insufficient blood flow to the elbow joint causes a small piece of the bone to separate from its place. As a result, cartilage and the underlying bone loosen and crack, causing inner elbow pain and other OCD symptoms, including:

  • Stiffness 
  • Swelling
  • Limited range of motion in the affected elbow
  • Worsening pain at night
  • Numbness or tingling in the pinky and ring fingers 

This condition can affect people of all ages but is most common in children, adolescents, and young adults. Research suggests repetitive stress—from playing sports or obesity—may impair blood flow to the elbow joint and increase the risk of microtears in the tissues.

Ulnohumeral Arthritis 

Ulnohumeral arthritis is a type of elbow osteoarthritis that affects the ulnohumeral joint, where your ulna bone meets your humerus bone. Osteoarthritis develops when cartilage in the elbow joint breaks down and wears away, typically from normal “wear-and-tear” due to aging or years of repetitive activities that involve the joints, such as heavy manual labor or playing sports.

Symptoms of elbow osteoarthritis develop gradually over time and can include:

  • Pain and stiffness in the inner elbow that worsens with activity and improves with rest 
  • Elbow swelling
  • Grinding or grating sensation in the elbow
  • Loss of mobility or range of motion in the elbow
  • Numbness and tingling in the ring and pinky fingers

Less Common Causes

Other possible causes of inner elbow pain include: 

  • Elbow avulsion fracture: Occurs when a tendon or ligament in the elbow joint tears, pulling a fragment of bone away with it
  • Tendon rupture: Causes a complete tear of a tendon in the elbow joint, leading to sudden inner elbow pain 
  • Olecranon bursitis: Develops when your bursa (a fluid-filled sac that cushions your elbow) becomes inflamed, causing swelling, pain, and stiffness

Inner elbow pain often responds well to self-care measures like rest and ice. However, some causes of inner elbow pain require medical attention and treatment to relieve pain and promote healing. See a healthcare provider for inner elbow pain if you experience: 

  • Pain that persists for more than two weeks 
  • Sudden, severe pain following a direct blow or fall on the elbow
  • Significant swelling, bruising, or deformity around the elbow joint
  • Inability to bend or straighten the elbow
  • Fever or chills accompanying elbow pain
  • Numbness or tingling in your arm or fingers 

If you decide to see your healthcare provider for inner elbow pain, it can help to know what to expect during your appointment. Your provider will likely perform a physical examination and order tests to diagnose the cause of inner elbow pain.

Depending on your symptoms, your primary care provider (PCP) may diagnose the cause themselves or refer you to an orthopedic surgeon—a doctor specializing in diagnosing and treating injuries and conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system.

Physical Exam

During the physical exam, your healthcare provider will look at your elbow to check for signs of inflammation and injury, such as bruising, swelling, and tenderness. They may also ask you to move your arm in specific ways to test your elbow’s range of motion.

Your provider will also review your medical history and ask about your symptoms, such as: 

  • When did your symptoms begin?
  • Did your pain begin suddenly or gradually?
  • Have you experienced any recent falls or injuries?
  • Do any activities improve or worsen your pain?
  • Does your pain radiate to other parts of your arm?

These questions can help your provider understand what may be causing your pain and determine if you need any additional diagnostic tests.

Diagnostic Tests 

Many diagnostic tests can help your provider confirm the cause of inner elbow pain. Depending on your symptoms, your healthcare provider may order: 

  • Imaging tests: X-rays, ultrasounds, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans which create detailed images of the bones, ligaments, tendons, and nerves in your elbow to help identify abnormalities such as tendonitis, nerve compression, and fractures
  • Nerve conduction study: Assesses the function of the ulnar nerve and the signals it sends to the brain to check for nerve compression or damage 

If your inner elbow pain requires treatment, your healthcare provider can recommend a combination of home remedies and medical treatments to improve symptoms.

Home Remedies

Several home treatments can help reduce inner elbow pain and inflammation. Your provider may recommend the following:

  • Rest: Avoid activities that cause or worsen inner elbow pain for at least two to three weeks to allow the injured tissues to heal
  • Ice: Place a wrapped ice pack on the inside of your elbow for up to 20 minutes four times daily to relieve pain and inflammation
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Use medications such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) to reduce inflammation and provide temporary pain relief
  • Gentle stretching: Stretch your elbow to improve flexibility and support healing
  • Supportive bracing: Try an elbow brace or splint to help stabilize the joint and minimize strain

Medical Treatments

Some causes of inner elbow pain require medications, procedures, and therapies to promote healing. These treatments include: 

  • Prescription medications: Prescription-strength NSAIDs or corticosteroid injections help manage pain and reduce inflammation
  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist can design a personalized program that focuses on strengthening the muscles around the elbow and improving the elbow’s flexibility and range of motion
  • Extracorporeal shockwave therapy: A non-invasive therapy that generates shockwaves through sound and pressure waves to reduce pain
  • Surgery: More severe injuries to the structures around the inner elbow may require surgery to repair or remove damaged tissue and restore elbow function

Inner elbow pain has many possible causes, but most commonly stems from an overuse injury when repetitive motions damage the elbow joint or conditions that cause inflammation.

If your inner elbow pain doesn’t go away with home remedies, seeing a healthcare provider can help you understand the cause of your symptoms. Your provider can also recommend appropriate treatments such as medications, therapies, or surgery.

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