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Anatomy of the Elbow and How It Functions

The elbow is the point at which the single bone of the upper arm (the humerus) meets the two bones of the lower arm (the Radius and the Ulna). The bony tip of the elbow, the olecranon, is part of the Ulna. The two bony knobs on the inside and the outside of the elbow, the epicondyles, are part of the lower humerus.

The elbow is actually composed of three joints:

  • The Radio-Humeral joint links the humerus to the Radius
  • The Ulno-Humeral joint links the Humerus to the Ulna
  • The superior Radio-Ulnar joint connects the upper portions of the Radius and the Ulna to each other.

The joint surfaces are covered with a smooth articular cartilage that facilitates movement. These joints together allow the elbow to bend and straighten like a hinge and also permit the forearm to rotate without moving the upper arm. 

Muscles in the upper and lower arm work together to keep the elbow stable, well-aligned and moving. Among the more important of these muscles are the Biceps and the Brachialis in the front of the upper arm, and the Triceps and Aconeus in the back of the upper arm. Flexible fibrous cords of tissue called tendons (technically, extensions of the muscle) attach the muscles to the humerus, Radius and Ulna.

The elbow mechanism is further reinforced by the joint capsule, fibrous and connective tissue material that surrounds the joints and by a range of ligaments or tough bands of fibrous tissue that bind the various joint ends together.

Major ligaments run from the two epicondyles to the upper Ulna and to the upper Radius (the medial collateral ligament and the lateral collateral ligament). Another important ligament (the annual ligament) encircles the upper Radius.

Minor elbow pain can be managed by the following:

  • Rest - It can provide some relief by giving the tissue some time to heal and regenerate. Prolonged immobilization, however, is not recommended; gentle movement and stretching and a gradual return to normal activity are best.

  • Ice - It may be applied to the affected area. The ice numbs the pain temporarily and may reduce or prevent swelling. A number of professional quality elbow ice packselbow braces, and elbow pain topical gels are available to help relieve your elbow pain.

  • Moist heat - After a period of using ice, apply moist heat to the elbow in a 20-minutes-on and 20-minutes-off cycle. Moist heating pads tends to relax tense, strained muscle fibers, offering some relief from pain and stiffness.


Three major nerves

The Median, Ulnar, and Radial nerves
- These run the length of the arm, crossing the elbow at various points. Each of these nerves allows a person to contract specific muscles in the arm and hand and to perceive sensations such as touch, temperature, and pain. (Because these nerves run the length of the arm, pain in the hand or fingers is sometimes a symptom of a problem in the elbow.)

The Olecranon bursa, a fluid-filled sac at the elbow tip, cushions the joints and minimizes friction. A synovial membrane in the elbow capsule also provides lubrication for the entire elbow. The elbow functions as a part of the kinetic chain that includes the neck, shoulder, and upper arm at one end and the forearm, wrist, and hand at the other. All these different areas of the body are interrelated and depend on one other for correct functioning and movement.

Problems with the Elbow


The construction of the elbow is relatively simple and is therefore more durable than many of the body's other joints. By no means is it free of risk. Repetitive-motion injuries are especially common in the elbow. Moreover, elbow injuries take on an added degree of seriousness because they sometimes result in wrist and hand problems.


While elbow problems may arise as the result of a specific traumatic incident - a fall, work-related accident, or sports injury - they often seem to appear out of nowhere. In cases where there is no obvious cause for pain, the culprit is often the cumulative stress, strain, and abuse from years of poor body mechanics. In young people and active adults, problems tend to be related to sports, which can be punishing on the elbow.


Elbow symptoms are varied. Pain can be dull, sharp, constant, intermittent, or like "pins and needles." It is also variable, from mild discomfort to intense pain. It may be site specific or generalized. It may appear only with certain motions of the arm, or the elbow's range of motion may be limited.


Home Treatment

  • Some elbow conditions, such as mild strains and sprains, call for simple home treatments such as rest, elbow braces, elbow ice packs and elbow heating pads. These types of elbow treatment products are usually very effective at relieving pain and inflammation.

  •  Other conditions demand more advanced physical therapy techniques: carefully and scientifically tailored exercises to strengthen the elbow and improve range of motion and perhaps treatments such as ultrasound and electrical stimulation.

  •  Still other problems require surgery or other major interventions, although these, too, are usually complemented with an exercise program as part of rehabilitation.

  •  Many Physical Therapists and Doctors recommend resistance training as a good way to help strengthen the muscles and improve range of motion in the elbow.
***The information, including opinions and recommendations, contained in the Web site is for general educational purposes only. Such information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. No one should act upon any information on this Web site without first seeking medical advice from a qualified medical physician with whom they have a confidential doctor/patient relationship.***


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