Do you sometimes hear cracking or grating noises coming from various joints in your body? If you’re not the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz you might wonder if this is ok. There are some things in life we cannot control, such as time and the aging process. We know that the delights of muscle and joint pain are part of the aging process and something most of us probably have to face at some time in the future. But what if your elbow keeps popping when you simply bend or extend your arm (and you’re not even that old!!)

Maybe that elbow cracking and popping noise is followed by pain?

The elbow cracking noise and pain may be hiding a more serious issue that you should not underestimate. There are some signs to look out for and some explanations as to why this may be happening:

Why does my elbow pop?

Tennis Elbow

You might be surprised to hear that the name is a little bit misleading as this painful condition does not only affect tennis players. Most doctors recognize that the majority of people who come to their clinics for help are not, and never have been, tennis players. This is a commonly known musculoskeletal condition (meaning it affects both the muscles and bones within the elbow joint). The medical name is lateral epicondylitis and if you already know that they you may also know how painful and debilitating this condition can be if not caught early and treated in the proper way.

What causes this painful condition? In most cases, tennis elbow is caused by overuse of the muscles which are attached to the elbow. So, chances are that your tennis elbow is the result of carrying out everyday tasks including gardening, DIY, fishing, and / or if your job involves any kind of repetitive and constant use of your arm, including extension of the wrist with or without forearm rotation. A good example would be the work carried out by a painter and decorator, a hairdresser or even a computer user. Of course tennis players too are susceptible to tennis elbow, along with badminton players and squash players, where the action of twisting the wrist and forearm movement is continuously repeated. Other sports which can commonly bring on elbow injuries include throwing sports such as the javelin or discus.

Osteoarthritis

The human elbow is a hinge type joint, between the bone of the upper arm, the humerus, and the two bones of the lower arm, the radius and the ulna. One of the first signs that you may have osteoarthritis is when there is a loss in the range of movement or motion. This will be especially evident when trying to straighten the elbow where a gradual build up of pain makes any movement of the elbow joint difficult.

Osteoarthritis happens when the cartilage at the end of the bones start to wear down. The cartilage, which cushions and protects the end of the bones can wear away because of overuse. Repetitive action is usually the reason and the patient experiences pain and loss of the normal range of movement causing a stiffness in the joint. The grating noise that you hear coming from your elbow, also known as crepitus, may be a red flag warning for damaged cartilage, or best case scenario, inflammation which is why your elbow keeps cracking and causing discomfort.

Fatigued Elbow

As with the above mentioned reasons – a fatigued elbow can be caused by repetitive actions accompanied by heavy lifting. While the human body is built to endure untold stresses on a daily basis, sometimes the weight of it all is literally too much. Of course, the elbow, knee and hip joints take the brunt of the stress and weight bearing. This can be seen in labor intensive workers such as construction workers and also among weightlifters. Sometimes during a workout in the gym you might hear elbow cracks upon lifting heavy weights or using weight lifting machines. The sensation will be that of a “stiff” or “locked” elbow with elbow pain and popping noises.

While overuse and wear and tear of the joint can cause pain and a reduction in motion, sometimes a build up of gases in your elbow might be the reason… yes, you read it right! A buildup of synovial fluid in the elbow along with the nitrogen gas found naturally in the body can lead to elbow joint popping. Synovial fluid is found in the joints of our body and it acts as a lubricant to enable joints to bend, rotate and extend with ease. During a workout or heavy lifting, the pressure of the nitrogen gas can increase and when too much it creates the elbow cracking noise and pain we mentioned.

Should I seek treatment if my elbow hurts and pops?

With cracking and popping of the elbow there is usually no need for concern and it often resolves itself or you get used to the elbow popping and elbow cracking noises! Cause for concern may arise if the cracking and popping is accompanied by swelling and persistent pain and you should book an appointment with a sports medicine doctor.

Tennis elbow however should be treated and attention is needed as soon as symptoms appear. Early intervention will prevent the development of a more serious situation. Suggestions from your medical provider will include:

  • rest from the activities which are creating the pain in your elbow.
  • Ice packs held on the affected area along with anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) which will help reduce both pain and inflammation.
  • Strengthening exercises under the supervision of a physiotherapist to help slowly regain movement and strength in the arm and elbow.
  • In extreme cases surgery might be required for tennis elbow but this decision is one which will be made with the help of your shoulder surgeon.

The most important thing in recovery from tennis elbow is discovering what is causing the injury and seeking help, if necessary through your employer, as to how you can limit doing this action by either changing work habits, checking posture and controlling repetitive actions.