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How Psoriatic Arthritis Affects the Elbow

Posted on February 10, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
Max Mugambi

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues, causing joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Psoriatic arthritis affects up to 30 percent of people with psoriasis.

PsA, like rheumatoid arthritis, is a form of chronic inflammatory arthritis that can affect any joint in the body. For many people, it affects the elbow, causing the joint to become painful, swollen, and stiff. These symptoms of PsA in the elbow can be mild and develop slowly or arise suddenly and severely.

Because the elbow is such a frequently used joint, these symptoms can have a number of impacts on your daily life. Luckily, there are multiple medications and therapies that can be used to manage PsA-related elbow pain and discomfort.

Elbow Problems With Psoriatic Arthritis

In psoriatic arthritis, elbow problems are associated with two common symptoms of the disease: enthesitis and peripheral arthritis.

Enthesitis

Enthesitis is inflammation of the enthesis — the connective tissue that attaches ligaments or tendons to the bone. Your body has more than 100 of these sites, including the elbow.

Although anyone can develop enthesitis, the condition is far more prevalent among people living with PsA. Enthesitis often occurs early in people with PsA, although it may develop at any stage of the disease. It typically affects the elbows, shoulders, knees, hips, and the heels.

Enthesis has been referred to as “a hallmark of psoriatic arthritis.” It is estimated that 1 in 3 people with PsA develop enthesitis. This condition is so common in PsA, in fact, that rheumatologists often confirm a PsA diagnosis by looking for the presence of enthesitis.

Peripheral Arthritis

According to the Arthritis Foundation, many people with PsA experience peripheral arthritis — a form of arthritis that tends to affect the large joints, including the elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles.

The discomfort caused by peripheral arthritis may migrate from one joint to another. If not treated, it may cause pain that can last from a few days to several weeks.

Elbow Problems in PsA

MyPsoriasisTeam members frequently share their experiences with elbow discomfort caused by PsA. As one member wrote, “I have a painful elbow and stiff, swollen hands!” Another simply commented, “I have a lot of pain in my elbow.”

One MyPsoriasisTeam member asked the community, “Does anyone else have really sore elbow joints due to psoriasis?” They shared that they “have joint pain everywhere,” but their elbows are the worst.

Another member asked what type of elbow pain others had experienced: “You spoke of pain in your elbow. Is it like a stiffness or a cramping feeling? I think I have the same problem.”

Members have also shared how their PsA-related elbow discomfort presents and when it worsens. As one wrote, “My elbows are very sore. I have pain in the morning, and it hurts when bending.” Another member shared that inflammation caused their elbows to feel “really sore, red, and hot.”

As another member pointed out, psoriatic arthritis can affect multiple joints, including the elbow, at the same time: “I’ve got it bad on my elbows, amongst other places on my body. Do you get really bad pain in your elbow joints?”

Elbow pain can make it difficult to perform your daily activities, especially if they require a considerable amount of lifting or moving. As one MyPsoriasisTeam member wrote, “I drop everything like 50 times a day and occasionally go numb when I bend my elbows.” Having a limited range of motion can also affect your ability to perform tasks at work, if you’re required to lift or move objects.

See a health care professional, such as a rheumatologist, as soon as possible if you start to experience PsA symptoms in your elbow joints.

How To Manage Elbow Problems With Psoriatic Arthritis

Your doctor can help you come up with the right treatment plan to reduce pain and improve the quality of your daily life.

Treatment options for PsA, no matter which joints it affects, include medical treatments, physical devices, and therapy. Below are some of the treatments that your doctor may prescribe or recommend for PsA-related elbow pain.

Medical Treatments

One of the main goals of treating PsA with medication is to control inflammation. This helps reduce joint pain, as well as prevent joint damage.

The following medical treatments may be used to manage PsA-related elbow problems.

Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation caused by PsA. These drugs include over-the-counter medications, like Ibuprofen, and stronger options are available by prescription.

Disease-Modifying Antirheumatic Drugs

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which include Otrexup (Methotrexate) and Arava (Leflunomide), are used to slow down the progression of PsA and reduce inflammation. Biologic DMARDs such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors (Enbrel, Humira, Simponi, and others) may be prescribed if conventional DMARDs aren’t successful at treating PsA. DMARDs don’t start working immediately. They may take up to three months to start having a noticeable effect on psoriatic arthritis symptoms.

Steroids

Steroid injections are administered directly into the affected joint. These injections can quickly reduce inflammation and help ease elbow pain caused by PsA. They may be able to keep pain and inflammation away for months at a time. As one MyPsoriasisTeam member urged, “Get a cortisone injection. It works wonders.” Talk to your doctor about side effects associated with steroid injections.

Physical and Occupational Therapy for PsA in the Elbow

The following types of therapy can help reduce elbow problems caused by PsA.

Physical Therapy

Working with a physical therapist (physiotherapist) can help you remain active and independent while dealing with your elbow pain. They will assess your movements, address your needs, and even help manage your pain.

Occupational Therapy

An occupational therapist can help you by providing alternative ways of performing various daily activities. Devices such as brushes with a longer handle and zipper aids can make tasks easier when dealing with PsA-related pain.

Other Ways of Managing PsA-Related Elbow Pain

Some MyPsoriasisTeam members have had success managing their pain using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS) units, as well as heat and cold therapy.

TENS Units

TENS units are small, battery-operated devices that use electrical impulses to help reduce pain by stopping pain signals in the brain. One MyPsoriasisTeam member recommended using a TENS unit while exercising: “I have a TENS unit that is portable and awesome for keeping the body moving when having severe pain.”

Heat and Cold Therapy

Many MyPsoriasisTeam members recommend heat and cold therapy for relieving elbow pain and discomfort. One member shared their method for heat therapy: “I use a rice-filled sock heated in the microwave for a few minutes. It helps.” Another member found that ice packs worked better for them: “I think the cooling action helps reduce the inflammation.”

Connect With Others Who Understand

MyPsoriasisTeam is the social network for people living with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. Here, 87,000 members regularly discuss their experiences with managing their symptoms, finding the right treatments, and living with psoriasis or PsA.

Do you experience PsA symptoms in your elbows? How do you relieve your pain? Join MyPsoriasisTeam today and share your stories with others by leaving a comment below or starting a conversation on your Activities page.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Max Mugambi is a copywriter at MyHealthTeam with more than five years of experience writing about a diverse range of subjects. Learn more about him here.

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