Adapting your movements
The first thing to do if you have elbow pain is to change or adapt any movements that might be causing your symptoms or making them worse, for example if you’ve been doing a lot of twisting movements like using a screwdriver. Most cases of elbow pain won’t improve until this is done.
Flare-ups of some conditions can be eased by avoiding bending your elbow into positions that cause the symptoms.
If you think your work might be the main cause of your pain, especially if it involves repetitive movements, it's worth discussing this with an occupational therapist. They'll be able to advise on how to change your movements and ways to support your elbow while it's healing. If your place of work has an occupational health department they may also be able to help.
Read more about work and arthritis.
Simple painkillers such as paracetamol (an analgesic) may help to ease pain. You should use them as and when you need them, but it’s best to take them before the pain becomes very bad.
It’s important that you take them regularly and at the recommended dose, but you shouldn’t take them more often than every four hours or take no more than eight in 24 hours.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, which you can buy at chemists and supermarkets, can also help. You can use painkillers and NSAIDs for a short course of treatment of about a week to 10 days. If they’ve not helped after this time then they’re unlikely to and you should see your doctor.
If these medications don’t help, your GP may be able to prescribe other painkillers. If they prescribe stronger NSAIDs, they’ll take precautions – for example, by prescribing the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible period of time. NSAIDs can cause digestive problems (stomach upsets, indigestion or damage to the lining of the stomach) so in most cases NSAIDs will be prescribed along with a drug called a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), which will help to protect the stomach.
NSAIDs also carry an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Although the increased risk is small, your doctor will be cautious about prescribing NSAIDs if there are other factors that may increase your overall risk, such as those listed for over-the-counter NSAIDs.
Using a splint called an epicondylitis clasp may relieve the strain when you’re doing activities that cause flare-ups. They put pressure on the muscle, which alters tension where the muscle is attached to the tendon. They’re available from chemists, sports shops and physiotherapists.
Applying a heat pack to the affected area can ease pain and stiffness. You can use a reusable heat pad (which you can buy from chemists and sports shops), a microwavable wheat bag or hot-water bottle.
An ice pack, for example a bag of frozen peas, can also be helpful. Make sure that you don’t put either the heat or ice pack directly onto your skin to avoid burning or irritating your skin. And don’t use them for too long – 10–15 minutes every couple of hours should be enough.
To prevent your elbow joint stiffening and your arm muscles weakening we recommend that you don’t rest for more than a few days. Start some gentle exercise as soon as the pain begins to ease. Simple exercises can help to restore your range of movement, promote strength, ease stiffness and help get your elbow back to normal.
You can download a selection of exercises that are designed to stretch, strengthen and stabilise the structures that support your elbow. They’re all useful if you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, as long as you don’t have a flare-up in your elbow, and you should try to do them every day. Start by exercising very gently and gradually build up. Unless you’ve fractured your elbow, you should stretch it out fully once a day to prevent contractures.
Download our elbow pain exercise booklet (PDF).
Try our exercises for tennis elbow.
As with any physical activity, you’ll need to use some common sense in performing these exercises. While some aches or discomfort during or following exercise are normal and should be expected, if an exercise makes your symptoms significantly worse you should stop doing it.
Read more about exercise and arthritis.