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Wirral University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

Elbow and hand

Elbow and Hand pain

Most elbow and hand pain has a very simple cause and clears up within a few days. The pain usually comes from strained or inflamed soft tissues such as tendons. You can normally treat this pain yourself with over-the-counter painkillers and a few days' rest, and you may not need to see your doctor.

It’s important not to rest for too long as lack of movement causes your joint to stiffen and the muscles to weaken, which increases the chance that you'll have further symptoms. Simple exercises can help to reduce the risk of future problems.

Most cases are due to strained or inflamed soft tissues such as tendons or ligaments.

These tend to get better after a few days with simple self-care you can do at home.

Stiffness can happen due to problems with the joints themselves or with the muscles, covering of the joint, or ligaments.

In some situations, such as after an injury or operation, soft tissue can form into scar tissue. This can cause elbow stiffness.

Occasionally, the elbow may lock in a fixed position. This is often short-lived but may be due to a loose bit of bone or cartilage in the joint. The loose fragments may need to be washed out in surgery.

When to see a doctor

Most cases of pain will get better on their own or with simple self-help treatments. You should see a doctor if:

  • your pain doesn’t improve after two weeks of taking painkillers and resting yoand you haven’t had an injury or infection
  • you have tingling, numbness or weakness in your arm or hand.

You should visit a hospital’s accident and emergency department straight way if:

  • you notice symptoms such as severe pain that stops you from moving your arm, swelling, fever, heat and redness. These can sometimes be signs of infection.
  • you think you’ve fractured a bone– this will probably follow an obvious injury such as a direct impact or fall onto an outstretched hand. A fracture will cause pain and usually bruising and swelling.

Generalised arm pain is common and usually caused by an injury or fall. It can often be managed with rest and over-the-counter painkillers.

If the pain persists even after resting and taking painkillers, or if you have other symptoms and are uncertain of the cause, see your GP.

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