Injuries to the cartilage (smooth covering over the ends of the bone) of the elbow joint are relatively common. When the damage to the cartilage is large and involves the entire surface, it is typically referred to as “Elbow Arthritis” – but you can experience more focal injuries to the cartilage of the elbow. One of the most common forms of cartilage injuries in the elbow is “osteochondritis dissecans” (OCD). This typically occurs in the capitulum (outer part of the humerus bone), but it can occur in other locations of the elbow. The severity of this injury is quite variable. It can be small or large in size. It may affect the cartilage alone, or it can affect the cartilage and the underlying bone. While it is most common in younger athletes (ages 10-18), it can occur in patients of all ages.
- Pain in the elbow
- Clicking, catching, or locking of the elbow when trying to bend or straighten it
- A grinding sensation or sound
- Decreased range of motion
Seek immediate care if you are unable to fully straighten or bend your elbow, or if you develop persistent grinding, catching, or locking in the joint. If you have elbow pain that does not improve with rest, you should see a doctor.
- Traumatic injury such as a fall or accident
- Repetitive overuse (throwing a ball, gymnastics, weight lifting, etc.)
- Repetitive loading or lifting with the elbow joint
- Personal or family history of other cartilage injuries in other joints of the body
- Sports or activities that require repetitive use of the elbow such as baseball, softball, gymnastics, wrestling, etc.
Nonoperative management with focused physical therapy, activity modification, and bracing are considered for many patients, especially if the injury is small and the symptoms are minimal. In addition to these strategies, resting the elbow is critical. For patients with larger lesions, catching or locking of the elbow, or persistent symptoms despite non-operative treatment, surgery may be indicated. The surgical treatment options vary widely and range from simple arthroscopic debridement to fixation to partial replacement of the cartilage/bone with a graft. Treatment is always individualized based on your age, symptoms, activity goals, and the size/magnitude of the cartilage defect. Because the optimal treatment strategies vary widely based on these factors, it is important to work closely with a doctor to find the best treatment option for you.
People who experience a cartilage injury to the elbow may be at increased risk for developing arthritis in the elbow later in life. Multiple factors likely influence the risk of arthritis, such as the severity of the original injury, the presence of related injuries in the joint, and the level of activity after treatment.