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How Psoriatic Arthritis Affects the Elbow: Pain and Treatment

Medically reviewed by Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Written by Max Mugambi
Updated on February 5, 2024

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues, causing joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Psoriatic arthritis affects about 30 percent of people with psoriasis, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation, but it can also appear before the skin lesions.

PsA, like rheumatoid arthritis, is a form of chronic inflammatory arthritis that can affect most joints 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.

PsA may affect the elbows with symptoms like joint pain and stiffness. Since people with PsA also experience skin psoriasis, they may have skin symptoms, like plaques, on the elbows. (Adobe Stock)

Elbow Problems With Psoriatic Arthritis

In psoriatic arthritis, elbow problems are associated with two common aspects 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 mechanical enthesitis (due to repetitive movements or overuse of the joint), 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 heels most frequently, but also the elbows, shoulders, knees, and hips.

Some health experts have referred to enthesitis as a hallmark of psoriatic arthritis. Researchers have found that between 35 percent and 50 percent of people with PsA develop enthesitis. Enthesitis is so common in PsA that rheumatologists often look for the presence of the condition to help in diagnosing PsA.

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 and permanent structure changes in joints.

Elbow Problems in Psoriatic Arthritis

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 that 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.”

Changes in PsA Elbow Symptoms

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?”

Effects of PsA Elbow Symptoms on Daily Life

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 (such as Advil), as well as stronger options available by prescription.

Disease-Modifying Antirheumatic Drugs

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which include methotrexate (Otrexup), leflunomide (Arava), and sulfasalazine, are used to slow down the progression of PsA and reduce inflammation.

A doctor may prescribe biologic DMARDs if conventional DMARDs aren’t working. These include tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors — such as etanercept (Enbrel), adalimumab (Humira), and golimumab (Simponi) — and targeted DMARDs, such as interleukin (IL)-17, IL-12, and IL-23 inhibitors such as secukinumab (Cosentyx) and ustekinumab (Stelara). Biologic drugs have certain side effects, and patients need to be tested for infections before starting treatment. 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 elbow pain and psoriatic arthritis 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 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 To Ease 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.”

Some people living with PsA have found that using a TENS unit, which sends electrical impulses to interrupt pain signals, helps alleviate PsA-related elbow pain. (Adobe Stock)

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, over 125,000 members regularly discuss their experiences with managing their symptoms, finding the right treatments, and living with psoriasis or PsA.

Do you experience symptoms of psoriatic arthritis in your elbows? How do you relieve pain during joint flare-ups? Join MyPsoriasisTeam today and share your stories with others by leaving a comment below or starting a conversation on your Activities page.

Updated on February 5, 2024

A MyPsoriasisTeam Member

I was treated for a bilateral ulner nerve injury about 30 years ago. I now realize it was probably related to Psa, but not a single one of my doctors made the connection. Not even my fancy… read more

posted February 13
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My Elbows Have “frozen” And Do Not Extend Completely. Is This Due To My PsA?
May 25, 2024 by A MyPsoriasisTeam Member 3 answers
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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