Elbow Arthritis osteoarthritis of the elbow degenerative joint disease of the elbow
Elbow arthritis is when the cartilage that caps the ends of the bones in the elbow joint wears away or is damaged.  Without healthy, smooth cartilage, the bones begin to grind together.  This causes pain, swelling, and stiffness.
Elbow arthritis is caused by wear and tear.  Cartilage does not have a very good blood supply and does not heal as well as other tissues.  Over time, it can begin to soften and peel away from the bone.  An injury to the elbow can damage the cartilage and speed up the wear and tear.  Lifestyle and genetics can play a role as well.
Elbow pain usually gradually worsens over time.  However, sometimes an injury can aggravate arthritis that was already present.  Elbow pain is worse with movement and it may grind or pop. 
Elbow arthritis is diagnosed based on a history, physical exam, and x-rays.  Patients usually have a history of gradually increasing pain that is worse with moving the elbow.  Sometimes elbow pain begins with an injury because the injury aggravates arthritis that is already present.
During the physical exam, the elbow is inspected for swelling.  Elbow range-of-motion, both active and passive, may be limited.  The elbow may be tender along the joint line.  The elbow sometimes crunches and pops with moving the arm.
In early arthritis, no changes are visible on an x-ray.  As arthritis becomes more advanced, the joint space between the bones narrows and bone spurs form.  X-rays are important when there is an injury in order to rule out fractures (broken bones). 
Non-surgical treatments for elbow arthritis are anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, ice, and activity modification.  Steroid injections can help to reduce pain and inflammation.  Physical therapy may or may not be beneficial.
Elbow arthroscopy (elbow scope) may provide temporary relief.  A camera is inserted through a small incision in the elbow.  The damaged cartilage is debrided. The definitive treatment for elbow arthritis is an elbow replacement.  During an elbow replacement, the arthritic ends of the humerus and ulna are removed and replaced with metal implants.  Patients need several weeks of rehabilitation.  Elbow replacement surgery relieves arthritic elbow pain.
anterior view
lateral view
medial view
normal elbow x-ray
degenerative changes (arthritis)
humerus
radius ulna
articular cartilage
humerus radius ulna humerus radius ulna