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What are shoulder arthritis and elbow arthritis?

Shoulder arthritis is inflammation of one or both of the joints in your shoulder that facilitate movement. Arthritis of the shoulder can affect the AC (acromioclavicular) joint or the glenohumeral joint or both.

Arthritis of the elbow is a condition in which the elbow’s cartilage is injured or worn. This is a common condition in the elderly population, as one of the leading causes of arthritis is the deterioration of the cartilage over time. Alternatively, the elbow joint can be damaged from a previous injury such as a fracture or dislocation.

Arthritis of the elbow is not as common as arthritis in other joints. This is because the elbow is a resilient joint with strong stabilizing ligaments, allowing it to endure a lot of force before being injured.

An estimated 40 million Americans have some form of arthritis or other rheumatic condition. According to a collaborative report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Arthritis Foundation and the American College of Rheumatology, the prevalence of osteoarthritis is rising as baby boomers grow older, with osteoarthritis being second only to chronic heart disease in causing worksite disability.

Types of shoulder and elbow arthritis

There are several types of elbow and shoulder arthritis:

  • Osteoarthritis—Also known as “wear and tear” arthritis, this condition generally affects people over age 50. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative and possibly hereditary condition that destroys the smooth outer covering (articular cartilage) of the bone. Osteoarthritis can affect either the glenohumeral or AC joint at the shoulder.
  • Rheumatoid shoulder arthritisAsystemic inflammatory condition of the joint lining of the glenohumeral joint (synovium). Rheumatoid arthritis affects multiple joints and people of all ages.
  • Post-traumatic shoulder arthritis—Can develop after any injury to the shoulder, such as a dislocation or fracture.
  • Rotator cuff tear arthropathyA type of arthritis in which the rotator cuff is torn and can no longer hold the head of the humerus, causing it to rub against and damage the surfaces of the bones.
  • Avascular necrosisA painful condition in which the bone cells die, resulting from disrupted blood supply to the head of the humerus. This can cause the shoulder joint to break down. 

Symptoms

The main symptoms of elbow and shoulder arthritis are:

  • Persistent pain
  • Loss of range of motion
  • “Locking up” of the joint
  • Numbness in the ring and small fingers (advanced cases of elbow arthritis)
  • Swelling in the joint

Causes

Seniors and those with prior history of elbow and shoulder problems are most at risk for arthritis. Some risk factors contributing to elbow and shoulder arthritis include:

  • Prior dislocation or fracture
  • Prior surgery on the joint
  • Loss of joint cartilage
  • Overuse injury (such as repeatedly pitching a baseball)

Treatment options

There are both nonsurgical and surgical treatment options for treating arthritis of the elbow, depending on how advanced your case is. Nonsurgical treatment is usually used for early-stage arthritis and usually includes taking pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, attending physical therapy, and/or adjusting your lifestyle and activities to prevent worsening the condition.

Late-stage cases of arthritis can usually be seen on X-rays if there has been significant damage, and in these cases, surgery is typically needed. If debris is collected in the elbow joint, arthroscopic surgery can be used to remove it in a minimally invasive way. This allows for shorter, less painful recovery than traditional surgery. 

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