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Elbow surgery

For elbow pain, surgery may help you get back in the game

When other treatments aren’t enough, elbow surgery may help you return to doing the things you love. Surgery can reduce pain and restore function for elbow injuries and for conditions like tendonitis, tennis elbow, arthritis and more.

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What it is

Elbow surgery is often an outpatient procedure – no need to stay in the hospital overnight. There are many elbow conditions that surgery can help. Here are some of the most common types of elbow surgery. 

  • Arthroscopic elbow surgery: In arthroscopy, your surgeon makes tiny incisions to insert a camera and guide special instruments to assess and repair elbow damage. It is a minimally invasive surgery that can be used to diagnose a range of elbow conditions. 
  • Ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) repair: The ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, helps hold two major arm bones, the ulna and humerus, in line during motion. Surgery involves a tendon graft to replace the torn UCL.  
  • Elbow fracture repair: This type of fracture can happen in an elbow dislocation or from a force, such as a fall. If the bones become misaligned or if the fracture is in several pieces, surgery can repair the injury and remove any loose material from the elbow joint.   
  • Bone spur removal: Over time, bone spurs called osteophytes can form along the back part of the elbow, causing pain and reduced range of motion. Surgery can remove this excess bone growth.  
  • Bursitis surgery: Bursas are thin sacs that cushion the olecranon bone, the pointy bone of the elbow, from the skin. When irritated or infected, the bursa swells with fluid, causing pain. A surgical procedure can remove the entire bursa. 
  • Arthritis surgery: Arthritis occurs when the cartilage that pads the bones is worn down or becomes damaged. Minimally invasive procedures, such as an arthroscopy, can remove loose bodies and any other degenerative tissue. In some cases, an elbow joint replacement might be the best option.

Good for treating

Most elbow conditions respond well to non-surgical treatment. But if medication, time or physical therapy doesn’t bring relief, your doctor may recommend surgery for a range of orthopedic elbow conditions: 

  • arthritis  
  • fracture, dislocation or other traumatic injury 
  • tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow and other overuse and strains  
  • ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) rupture 
  • bone spurs 
  • bursitis 
  • ulnar nerve entrapment

What to expect

Once you’ve made the decision to have surgery, your doctor and the rest of your care team will ensure you’re ready. You’ll receive detailed instructions to prepare for the operation, learn what to expect in the hospital or surgery center, and get helpful information on recovering at home.

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Reviewed by: Michael Q. Freehill, MD, orthopedic surgeon

First published: 10/26/2020
Last reviewed: 10/26/2020