Symptoms and diagnosis
Much rarer than osteoarthritis affecting the weight-bearing joints (knee and hip), elbow osteoarthritis generally affects younger subjects. This disease, tolerated better in the case of the elbow, is often detected much later than for the other joints.
The first warning sign is generally pain during extreme movements, or carrying a bucket for example. In day-to-day life, the patient complains of pain when completely straightening or bending the arm. These symptoms are often accompanied by “pins and needles” in the 4th and 5th fingers of the hand, typical indication of elbow osteoarthritis. An x-ray will confirm the diagnosis.
Main causes of elbow osteoarthritis
The elbow is the joint between three bones: the humerus, the cubitus and the radius. The sliding surfaces are lined with cartilage. Elbow osteoarthritis is the deterioration of the cartilage causing painful rubbing and sometimes osteophytes, or bone spurs, and progressively reducing the normal movement of the elbow: flexion and extension of the forearm, rotation of the wrist.
Elbow osteoarthritis often occurs following a trauma, fracture or luxation, but can be linked to a systemic disease (particularly rheumatoid arthritis), a genetic disorder or the patient’s family medical history.
Some professions or sports that put the elbow under a lot of strain with repeated physical exertion (use of jackhammers, bodybuilding or tennis, for example) promote the onset of elbow osteoarthritis.
Treating elbow osteoarthritis
The initial treatment of elbow osteoarthritis consists in relieving the pain, using anti-inflammatories or even corticosteroid injections. Rehabilitation can be very useful to limit the pain and to recover a certain degree of mobility.
Surgery (arthroscopic debridement) can be considered when the pain becomes incapacitating. The operation consists in cleaning the joint, particularly the osteophytes caused by the osteoarthritis.
The replacement of the worn joint with a prosthesis is only proposed when the other treatments fail. The lifespan of an elbow replacement is much shorter than for the hip or knee and therefore the long term results of this operation are more uncertain; ideally, it is performed on older patients.