Ways to Prevent Elbow Pain and Maintain Daily Activities

Techniques and devices that can help you live better with elbow pain.


Many causes of elbow pain can be treated simply at home with over the counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen (Aleve). If you cannot tolerate NSAIDs, or are already taking anti-inflammatory medications for arthritis, however, contact your doctor before taking an OTC pain-reliever.

Within 48 hours of an elbow injury, you should also begin self-care measures. Use the acronym RICE to help remember these treatments:

  • Rest. Take a break from activity. Avoid using your injured elbow.
  • Ice. Place an ice pack on your elbow for 15 to 20 minutes at a time to reduce pain and ease swelling.
  • Compression. Compress the elbow with an elastic bandage to help reduce swelling.
  • Elevation. As much as possible, keep your elbow elevated higher than your heart. Place your elbow on a pillow(s) alongside you when you sit or lie down.

Whether you have an acute injury or chronic arthritis, medications don't always relieve pain completely. At times when you need extra help with pain relief, recovery or help with daily activities, here are some techniques and devices worth trying.

Hot and cold. While cold is helpful for reducing inflammation from a new elbow injury, it also can be helpful for chronic pain or for the pain and inflammation of an arthritis flare. For aching elbows without acute inflammation, heat may provide relief.

Physical therapy. Physical therapy may be helpful for strengthening the muscles around the elbow and maintaining joint range of motion. Your doctor also may prescribe physical therapy for some elbow injuries, such as tennis elbow, or to help in recovering from elbow surgery. Following a program of physical therapy after a tendon injury can help strengthen and lengthen the tendon to prevent further injury.

To locate a physical therapist, check out the American Physical Therapy Association web site.

Braces and splints. Different types of braces and splints can take pressure off damaged tissues and permit healing. One of the most common is a "counterforce" brace for tennis elbow. Worn around the forearm just beneath the elbow, this brace can relieve tendon pressure during activities that involve twisting the arm.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). A technique in which a weak electric current is administered through electrodes placed on the skin, TENS is believed to stop messages from pain receptors from reaching the brain. It may be useful for short-term pain control in some people with elbow pain.

Electrical stimulation. Electrical stimulation of muscle tissue (called neuromuscular electrical stimulation) around the elbow may be useful for strengthening the muscles that support the joint and relieving pain in and around the joint. Electrical stimulation is often used on the knee, but is also a widely used treatment for tennis elbow.

Assistive devices. When your elbows are stiff or painful it can be hard to perform daily tasks, such as bathing, getting dressed, driving or reaching for items in your kitchen cabinets. Many devices are available to make these activities easier, including reachers, zipper pulls, long-handled brushes or sponges and specially designed adaptive clothing. You can buy many assistive devices through medical supply stores and specialized mail-order catalogs. Talk to your doctor and physical and/or occupational therapist about using these assistive devices.

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