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What is Posterior Impingement of the Elbow?

Posterior elbow impingement is a medical condition characterized by compression and injury of soft tissue structures such as cartilage at the posterior aspect (back) of the elbow joint. The impingement is caused by repetitive forced extensions and overuse of the elbow.

When the elbow is extended fully, the soft tissue structures at the back of the joint become compressed. When these compressive forces become excessive, they can result in inflammation and damage of the soft tissue and/or cartilage at the back of the joint causing impingement of the elbow. Sometimes, bony spurs may also develop inside the joint contributing to further worsening of the impingement. Other factors that could contribute to impingement include congenital ligamentous laxity or ulnar collateral ligament insufficiency.

Posterior impingement of the elbow is mostly seen in athletes involved in overhead-throwing sports, such as baseball, football, volleyball, and tennis, as well as in people involved in vigorous workouts and heavy bench-pressing.

Anatomy of the Elbow

The elbow is a complex hinge joint formed by the articulation of three bones: the humerus, radius, and ulna. The upper arm bone or humerus connects the shoulder to the elbow, forming the upper portion of the hinge joint. The lower arm consists of two bones, the radius and the ulna. These connect the elbow to the wrist to form the lower portion of the hinge joint. A joint capsule surrounds the elbow joint, which contains synovial fluid for lubrication. The elbow is held in place with the support of various soft tissues such as cartilage, tendons, ligaments, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and bursae.

Causes of Posterior Impingement of the Elbow

Some of the conditions that can trigger posterior elbow impingement include:

  • Synovitis or inflammation of the synovium, a membrane that lines the joints
  • Bursitis or inflammation of the bursae, fluid-filled sacs that cushion the joints
  • Bone spurs or abnormal bony projections along the ends of bones
  • Inflammation of the joints
  • Rupture of cartilage or other soft tissues
  • Stiffening of the ligaments, muscles, and tendons

Signs and Symptoms of Posterior Impingement of the Elbow

Some of the sign and symptoms of posterior elbow impingement include:

  • Pain and tenderness at the elbow
  • Joint stiffness
  • Locking and catching of the elbow
  • Abnormal popping or crackling sound
  • Joint effusion (abnormal fluid build-up)
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Swelling and bruising of the elbow
  • Inability or difficulty to extend or straighten the elbow

Diagnosis of Posterior Impingement of the Elbow

Your doctor will review your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical examination to check for range of motion, stability, and strength of your elbow. If necessary, your doctor will order certain imaging tests such as X-ray, MRI, CT scan, or ultrasound to confirm the diagnosis and narrow down any associated problems.

Treatment for Posterior Impingement of the Elbow

Treatment for posterior elbow impingement includes both surgical as well as non-surgical options. Your doctor will decide the best option based on the condition of your elbow.

Nonsurgical treatment options may include:

  • Ice: Application of ice packs on the elbow to decrease swelling and pain
  • Activity Modification: Avoiding activities that trigger symptoms and changing one’s habits
  • Physical Therapy: Regular exercise regimen to improve range of motion and strengthen elbow muscles
  • Anti-inflammatory Medication: Medications like naproxen and ibuprofen to relieve inflammation and pain.
  • Cortisone Injection: If physical therapy, medications, rest, and activity modification do not yield the desired results, a cortisone injection may be helpful. Cortisone is a very effective anti-inflammatory medicine for bursitis and long-term pain reliever for tears and structural damage.

Surgical treatment options may include:

  • Arthroscopy: Your doctor will be able to repair damage to soft tissues of the elbow by using this technique. Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgical procedure that involves making small keyhole incisions to pass a fiber-optic tube with a tiny camera called an arthroscope and miniature instruments into the elbow joint. The camera displays pictures of the affected region on a monitor and the doctor is guided by these images to carry out the necessary repair.
  • Open Surgery: A traditional open surgery approach would require a large surgical incision to be made to repair the affected region if the injury is large and complex. Open surgery has been utilized for joint debridement (removal of damaged cartilage or bone) or removal of posterior olecranon osteophytes (bone spurs).