Arthritis and Diseases that Affect the Elbows

Joint inflammation and other problems that may be to blame for elbow pain.


Many forms of arthritis and related conditions that affect the joints, muscles and/or bones can cause problems like pain, stiffness and swelling in the elbows. Here are some diseases that can affect the elbows.

  • Osteoarthritis (OA). The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis is a chronic condition characterized by the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones where they meet to form joints. This breakdown causes the bones to rub against each other, causing stiffness, pain and loss of movement in the joint. While osteoarthritis can affect the elbow, it is more common in weight-bearing joints, such as the knee and hip. Elbow OA is often the result of overuse or an injury.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the joints that occurs when body’s immune system – which normally protects from us from infection – mistakenly attacks the synovium, the thin membrane that lines the joints. The result can be joint damage, pain, swelling, inflammation, loss of function and disability. Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the elbow. The joint involvement of rheumatoid arthritis is symmetrical. That means if one elbow is affected the other likely will be, too.
  • Juvenile arthritis (JA). Juvenile arthritis is the term used to describe arthritis when it begins before age 16. There are several different types of juvenile arthritis, characterized by pain, swelling and potentially joint destruction. The oligoarticular form of juvenile arthritis commonly affects elbows.
  • Gout. Gout is a form of arthritis that occurs when excess uric acid, a bodily waste product circulating in the bloodstream, is deposited as needle-shaped monosodium urate crystals in tissues of the body, including the joints. For many people, the first symptom of gout is excruciating pain and swelling in the big toe – often following a trauma, such as an illness or injury. Subsequent attacks may occur off and on in other joints, typically the feet, ankles, hands, wrists, elbows and knees.
  • Calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate crystal deposition disease (pseudogout).  Like gout, pseudogout occurs when crystals form within the joints. With pseudogout, however, the crystals are formed from a salt called calcium pyrophosphate dihydrate. Although pseudogout occurs mostly in older people, it can affect younger people, particularly if they have other health problems. And like gout, pseudogout can cause intense pain and swelling, which often comes during the night. Pseudogout typically affects a single joint. The joints most likely to be involved are the knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows and wrists.
  • Psoriatic arthritis. Psoriatic arthritis is form of arthritis accompanied by the skin disease psoriasis. The skin disease often precedes the arthritis; in a small percentage the joint disease develops before the skin disease.  Psoriatic arthritis can cause inflammation of the elbow joint itself and a scaling skin rash over the elbow.
  • Reactive arthritis. Reactive arthritis is a chronic form of arthritis that often occurs following an infection of the genital, urinary or gastrointestinal system. Features of reactive arthritis include inflammation and swelling of the joints, eyes and structures within the gastrointestinal or genitourinary tracts, such as intestines, kidneys or bladder. Although the ankles, knees and joints of the feet often are the first joints affected by reactive arthritis, the elbow is the upper-extremity joint most commonly affected by the condition.
  • Lupus. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease, meaning the body's immune system creates antibodies that attack healthy tissues, including the joints, skin, heart, lungs and kidneys. The joints farthest from the torso, such as those of the hands and feet, are most commonly affected by lupus. However, elbow joints can be affected. Lupus also can be associated with a skin rash on the elbows and knees.
  • Infectious arthritis.  Also called septic arthritis, infectious arthritis refers to arthritis that is caused by an infection within the joint. Infectious arthritis is often caused by bacteria that spread through the bloodstream to the joint. Sometimes it is caused by viruses or fungi. Infectious arthritis occurs less frequently in the elbows than in the larger joints. One exception is arthritis due to N gonorrhoeae (the cause of gonorrhea), which typically involves the hands, wrists and elbows. Untreated, infection can lead to joint destruction.
  • Dermatomyositis. Dermatomyositis is an inflammatory disease characterized by inflammation and weakness of the muscles, purplish discoloration of the eyelids, swelling around the eyes, changes around the nail beds and a patchy skin rash over the knees and elbows.
  • Osteonecrosis. Also called avascular necrosis, aseptic necrosis or ischemic necrosis, osteonecrosis is a disease in which a temporary or permanent loss of blood supply to the bone causes the bone to die and eventually collapse. Often it occurs in a bone near the joint, which causes the collapse of the joint surface. The disease is most common in the top of the thigh bone, or femur. Other common sites include the upper arms, knees, shoulders and ankles. Osteonecrosis of the elbow is rare, but does occur.
  • Lyme disease. Lyme disease is an infectious disease spread by the bite of deer ticks infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. The first symptoms are often a bulls-eye-shaped rash and flu-like symptoms. If not treated early, the disease symptoms may progress to involvement of the heart, nervous system and joints, including the elbow.

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