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Understanding Causes Of Wrist And Elbow Pain, And When To Get Help

In a typical day, you use your hands, wrists, and elbows extremely frequently. From vigorously brushing your teeth in the morning to switching the lights off before bed and during most other actions in between, these joints are very often in a state of movement. But over time, performing certain tasks on a repetitive basis can go on to damage some of these structures and lead to injury.

A repetitive strain injury is a potentially disabling condition that results from overuse of a body region or structure—usually the hand or wrist, and sometimes the elbow—after performing the same movement over and over. Repetitive motions, like typing on a computer, cutting hair, working on an assembly line, or even using a cellphone can all cause increase stress and fatigue of different structures, resulting in pain and other symptoms in these regions.

Common wrist and elbow conditions vs red flags

Carpal tunnel syndrome is by far the most common and well-known repetitive strain injury in these areas, as it affects up to 5% of the adult population. But there are several other repetitive strain injuries that can also affect the wrist or elbow. Below, we break down some of the most common conditions that can produce pain and limit movement in the wrist and elbow, all of which can be effectively treated by a physical therapist. This is followed by some key red flags to be aware of that may suggest a bigger issue is present:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome: a repetitive strain injury that is likely caused by tasks that involve repeated hand motions, awkward positioning of the hand or wrist, vibration, or excessive gripping; individuals who work in industries like manufacturing, food processing, and textiles are likely at the highest risk; over time, these movements can cause the median nerve within the carpal tunnel to be compressed, which leads to pain, tingling, weakness, and/or numbness in the hand or wrist
  • Wrist tendinitis: a condition in which one or more tendons in the wrist becomes inflamed and irritated, which leads to pain and disability; tendinitis can occur at any age but is more common in adults; as tendons age, they become less elastic and can tolerate less stress, which makes it easier for them to become damaged
  • De Quervain’s tenosynovitis: this is a type of tendinitis that develops on the thumb side of the wrist; it causes pain and tenderness in the wrist or below the base of the thumb and often gets worse with repetitive hand or wrist movements; as with other types of tendinitis, tenosynovitis is more common after the age of 40
  • Dupuytren’s contracture: an abnormal thickening of tissue between the skin and tendons in the palm, which may limit the use of the fingers or eventually cause them to be pulled in towards the palm in a bent position; the causes of this condition are unknown, but it’ more common in men over the age of 50
  • Ulnar tunnel syndrome (Guyon’s canal syndrome): this condition is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, but it involves compression of the ulnar nerve, which leads to a tingling sensation in the ring and little fingers; it’s particularly common in weightlifters and cyclists
  • Golfer’s elbow (medical epicondylitis): this condition results from repeated bending of the wrist, which damages the muscles and tendons in the elbow and eventually leads to inflammation; it’s most common in golfers, but can occur from other sports and activities that strain the elbow, and the clearest indication is pain on the inside of the elbow that’s most noticeable when performing any type of gripping activities
  • Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis): a repetitive strain injury caused by repeatedly performing the same movements—in tennis, other racquet sports, or one’s profession—over and over; common symptoms are pain and a burning sensation on the outside of the forearm and elbow that gets worse with activity, as well as weakened grip strength

Red flags

  • Signs of infection or septic arthritis (eg, pus or fluid, redness, fever, blisters, worsening swelling)
  • Constant pain, including pain at night
  • Deep, intense pain
  • Pain associated with unexplained weight loss and/or fever
  • Suspected fracture or dislocation from severe trauma to the wrist or elbow
  • Known or suspected cancer (eg, significant bone pain, which may be suggestive of a bone tumor)
  • Persistent swelling and pain without any recent injury
  • Severe muscle spasm

In our next post, we’ll provide you with our top picks for exercises that can reduce your risk for developing wrist or elbow pain.

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