Best Elbow Braces By Condition [Bursitis, Arthritis, Tendinitis, Tendinosis, Epicondylitis, Cubital Syndrome]
Elbow injuries and overuse conditions are very common among athletes and the general population alike. The elbow, much like the knee, is a fairly complex joint that depends on many external structures for its strength and stability, such as ligaments and muscles. Often times, these are the structures that become injured, and as such, the stability of the elbow joint can become compromised. This is when an elbow brace can be beneficial, as the brace can provide a high level of stability, or work by other mechanisms to reduce injury symptoms.
We have already reviewed many different elbow braces for various applications. For example, we have written about the best tennis elbow braces, best golfers elbow braces, so please feel free to check out those articles as well, as they provide detailed information about their respective topics. As we have already covered tennis elbow and golfer's elbow in detail, we may only briefly touch on those conditions here.
One last thing we would like to note before describing the best types of braces for different conditions and injuries, is that we always highly encourage you to get your injury checked out by a doctor or physiotherapist first, as their hands-on approach may be able to guide you down a specific path for treatment and potential bracing. That said, even if you know your exact condition/injury and the full extent of it, you may still have many options to consider when it comes to elbow braces, so hopefully the information on the braces we highlight here will help narrow your selection.
Bursitis is a tricky condition that can also be considered an overuse injury. It results from repetitive motion of the elbow joint, and often times, those who are also applying constant pressure to a bursa will be at higher risk of bursitis as well. The primary symptoms are pain and swelling, and the swelling can often become quite significant.
Whenever you see 'itis' at the end of a medical term, it usually corresponds to inflammation of that particular structure. In this case, bursitis is the inflammation of bursa sac that are located in and around joints. Their purpose is typically to reduce friction between structures that have to glide past each other. They are basically smooth fluid-filled sacs, but with enough irritation, an excess amount of fluid can infiltrate the bursae and they can become inflamed. The elbow has a few different main bursae, all of which can become inflamed from various activities.
Subcutaneous Bursa: This bursa sac is located in the subcutaneous tissue (fat just under the skin) over the olecranon, which is the bony prominence we all commonly know as the elbow. This bursa is commonly inflamed in people with occupations that require a lot of leaning on the elbows and forearms. It is sometimes referred to as the olecranon bursa, which makes sense given its location, but technically, the term "olecranon bursa" should also incorporate the next two bursa as well.
Subtendinous Bursa: Located between the triceps tendon and the olecranon, this bursa is responsible for reducing friction as the triceps tendon moves over the back of the elbow.
Intratendinous Bursa: Located within the tendon of the triceps, this bursa actually isn't present in all individuals.
Bicipitoradial Bursa: Also known as the biceps bursa, it is located between the biceps tendon and the anterior (front) portion of the radial tuberosity. This helps reduce friction as the biceps tendon moves over that bony prominence.
Best Elbow Brace for Bursitis
Bursitis is a bit tricky to deal with because it needs to be monitored, but given that it doesn't really decrease the stability of your elbow joint, and no other structures have incurred any damage, bracing options can be limited. In this case, there are a couple different approaches that are more popular than others.
For the most minor bursitis, rest and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may work just fine for recovery. However, anything beyond that may require physical intervention. For example, doctors and perform a very routine aspiration of the bursa, whereby the fluid is simply drained from the bursa. This is done in a matter of minutes and is a fairly common and minor procedure. It is sometimes recommended that you wear a compression sleeve that offers mild-moderate compression after this procedure, as it can help prevent fluid from reentering the bursa while it heals.
The other method of treatment is actually prevention. Again, this is a little tricky because too much compression with repetitive movements can actually be a little harmful for the bursa, so you need to be careful with it. In this case, if you already know you may be more prone to developing some form of bursitis, many find it helpful to wear a compression sleeve that offers gentle compression, but the main pont here is to find something with a padded elbow. Having some sort of cushion material, such as foam, help guard the bursa can go a long way in preventing elbow bursitis.
Arthritis of the Elbow - Info
There are two main types of arthritis that affect the elbow. Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type of arthritis that inflicts damage on the elbow joint. This type of arthritis is the result of the immune system mistakenly attacking the protective lining of the bones. This is a chronic condition that is NOT the result of an injury. On the other hand, the next-most common type of arthritis in the elbow joint is osteoarthritis, which is a gradual breakdown of the articular cartilage that lines and cushions the ends of long bones. Unlike rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis can be an after effect of injury or surgery, general overuse, or simply a part of the aging process.
Given that rheumatoid arthritis is an immune response, many of the common treatment involve NSAIDs or prescription drugs, and sometimes changes in diet are required. When braces are used, they are typically used to fully immobilize the elbow to allow for a period of rest, but not for too long, as you want your muscles to stay healthy and strong as well.If this is something you think you may be interested in, we suggest referring to our article on the best hinged elbow braces.
For osteoarthritis, it's a little bit different. Usually, it's beneficial to keep your body moving with osteoarthritis, but this can be tricky, as it's often painful to do so. The main thing to remember is to keep within your limits. Compression sleeves can be used to relieve general pain and swelling in the elbow, and when participating in activities that involve a lot of elbow movement (especially rotation), a counterforce brace can be a great option, especially when combined with a compression sleeve. These are similar to the braces used for tennis elbow and golfer's elbow.
Best Elbow Brace for Osteoarthritis
The exact brace that will be best for you and your arthritis will depend on the type of arthritis, how far along the condition is, and how it is specifically affecting you. This is something that you can benefit from discussing with your doctor or physiotherapists, but nevertheless, we have provided our favorite brace for elbow osteoarthritis below.
Elbow Tendinitis, Epicondylitis, and Tendinosis
Difference Between Tendinitis and Tendinosis
Not many people realize there is a difference between tendinitis and tendinosis. We don't mean to bring this up to be overly detailed or nit-picky, we just think it's important to recognize the difference if you plan on doing any further research into the respective conditions.
Tendinitis is probably the most common term used to describe conditions like tennis elbow or golfer's elbow. Whenever you see 'itis' at the end of a word, that typically signifies that chronic inflammation is involved in the structure being discussed. Therefore, 'tendinitis' would refer to chronic inflammation or swelling of a particular tendon or groups of tendons. For a long time, it was thought that common conditions of the elbow like tennis and golfer's elbow was tendinitis, but new research is starting to reveal that this may actually be incorrect.
'Tendinosis' is now a term being increasingly used to describe the aforementioned conditions. Rather than referring to chronic inflammation of a tendon from regular micro-tearing, tendinosis is slightly different in that it corresponds to the degeneration of the tendon's collagen, which is the main structural protein found in connective tissues. This also results from chronic overuse, but rather than being a result of inflammation, the tendons simply don't have enough time to repair, and that affects their structure on a micro-scale.
The reason there was so much confusion at first is because when the tendon is trying to heal and doesn't have enough time before more damage from activity occurs, there is an increase an a less mature type of collagen, whereas healthy tendons mostly have a more mature type of collagen. Over time, this will result in the tendon with tendinosis having collagen fibers that are more jumbled than aligned, resulting in a weaker tendon that is more prone to damage. The end result is a tendon with more bulk, which can look like an inflammation process at first (tendinitis), but really, it's from the reorganization of collagen, and not from inflammation. Regardless, both conditions certainly warrant medical attention.
What About Epicondylitis?
You may have also seen the term epicondylitis before, especially in the sense of elbow pain and injuries. So where does this term come from, and what does it mean? This is also used to refer to tennis and golfer's elbow. It's sort of a weird term because the word itself suggests inflammation of the epicondyles of the humerus, which are the bony prominences on the sides of your arm just above the elbow joint cavity. So while this isn't the most accurate because the tendons are the structures that are damaged, it actually does help us narrow down which tendons are effected.
The epicondyles are a point of origin for many of the forearm muscles. Recall that tendons are the thin ribbon-like structures that connect a muscle belly to a bone. So if someone has 'lateral epicondylitis', this refers to a chronic condition affecting the tendons that originate on the lateral epicondyle. Similarly, there is also medial epicondylitis. Different movements of the arm will require different muscles to be activated, which is why the conditions are actually considered separate. For example, the muscles that originate on the lateral epicondyle are often used in tennis, hence lateral epicondylitis being the same as tennis elbow. The same is also true for the medial epicondyle and golfer's elbow. So while the term is a little misleading, it is actually fairly accurate in identifying where the damaged structures are in the arm.
Best Brace for Elbow Tendinitis/Tendinosis/Epicondylitis
While there is some variety in the design of braces for these conditions, there is one option that is arguably the most popular. This is in the form of a strap that looks fairly small. These are often called counterforce braces or counterforce straps, because they compress the tendons below the elbow joint, which relieves some of the stress on epicondyles.
Imagine you're playing a guitar. When you pluck a string, the whole string vibrates to create a sound. Now, if you hold down the string at a certain location along its length, only the part below where you are pressing it will vibrate. The part of the string above remains stationary, or at rest. This is similar to how a counterforce brace works. By applying pressure below the epicondyle, you are essentially creating a new point of origin. When you subsequently use those muscles, the portion of the muscles/tendons above the strap (so between the painful epicondyle and the strap) will vibrate less, providing them with a chance to rest and heal.
These types of braces are not only good for everyday use, but they also help prevent the development of pain when performing activities that typically cause the pain in the first place. For example, if you have tennis elbow, wearing a counterforce brace should help you keep playing with less pain in the affected area. Of course, you will need to take caution with this, as you may want to take a break for a while and allow the tendon a chance to catch up in its healing.
We would like to share a video tutorial with you about what elbow epicondylitis is and how to properly wear a counterforce brace. This video is brought to you by Dr. J Michael Bennett, a sports medicine doctor based in Houston.
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
Cubital Tunnel Syndrome - Info
A lot of people haven't heard of cubital tunnel syndrome, but it's surprisingly common. In fact, it's the second-most common peripheral nerve entrapment syndrome in the human body. This condition affects the ulnar nerve as it passes through the cubital tunnel. This nerve runs down the arm on the medial side of the elbow to eventually supply the pinky finger and half of the ring finger. When you hit your funny bone, you're not actually hitting a bone, but instead, you're hitting the ulnar nerve!
Similar to the carpal tunnel in the wrist, the cubital tunnel is a small passageway in th eelbow, through which structures like the ulnar nerve can pass. If this tunnel becomes compressed or damaged, or the structures within it swell up and cause compression from the inside out, this can in turn lead to impingement of the ulnar nerve, which can cause significant pain, numbness, tingling, or other weird nerve sensations. People who start developing cubital tunnel syndrome will often feel the effects in their hand, particularly the pinky finger and ring finger, which the ulnar nerve ultimately supplies.
So how do you get cubital tunnel syndrome? Some conditions like diabetes can predispose you to the condition, but other common physical factors can lead to cubital tunnel syndrome as well. For example, occupations that involve prolonged elbow flexion, especially when combined with compression on a hard surface, can definitely lead to cubital tunnel syndrome. For example, if you are on the phone all day for work, and you are resting your elbow on a desk with some weight on it, this can be a classic mechanism for the development of cubital tunnel syndrome. Additionally, any sort of overuse can lead to this as well, similar to elbow epicondylitis.
Best Brace for Cubital Tunnel Syndrome
If you have read our article on braces for carpal tunnel syndrome, much of that information will apply here as well. Basically, you want something that will relieve pressure on this nerve, but you also don't want your muscle to undergo significant atrophy due to immobilization. This can be really tricky, especially when dealing with a lot pain, but some planning ahead can allow for proper care at home.
In our opinion, the best brace for cubital tunnel syndrome is one that will immobilize the arm in a semi-flexed position that relieves the pressure on the ulnar nerve. These braces aren't overly common, but there are a decent number of braces designed specifically for cubital tunnel syndrome. However, as we just mentioned, you don't want to keep your arm immobilized permanently, so you will want to develop a strategy whereby you wear the brace for a part of the day, and allow your elbow to move freely for the other part of the day.
There are a couple ways you can approach this. One is to wear the cubital tunnel brace at night while you sleep, and then during the day only wear it a little bit when you feel you need relief from the pain. If you are involved in an occupation or activities that involve a movements or positions that facilitate the development of cubital tunnel syndrome, you can gradually wean off the brace and address this in other ways, that is, once you feel comfortable enough. For example, let's take an occupation that requires a lot of time on the phone. Once you're at a point where you are largely pain-free throughout the day, instead of wearing the brace at work, you can simply place a nice cushion under your elbow while on the phone and only wear the brace while you sleep.
This is just one way of developing a strategy for treating cubital tunnel syndrome, but ultimately this could vary greatly between individuals. When developing an action plan for using a brace to treat cubital tunnel syndrome, we definitely recommend discussing with your doctor or physiotherapist in order to develop a plan that is highly specific to your unique individual needs.
These are only a few conditions and injuries of the elbow that could require an elbow brace; however, they are the most common and therefore represent a good proportion of the conditions encountered. We would like to reiterate that it's very important to have a proper diagnosis of your elbow condition prior to purchasing a new elbow brace, as this will directly affect what brace you choose.
You may already have a hunch as to what condition you are suffering from, so keep this in mind and try and record anything that could help with a specific diagnosis, such as what types of activities lead to more pain or stiffness, and when this occurs. This will be a great help for your doctor or physiotherapist when diagnosis the condition or injury.
Elbow braces are a great help in treating numerous elbow injuries and conditions, but like anything else, please be careful and be diligent when treating your injury. Getting the treatment right the first time, and allowing the injury to heal as much as possible, will definitely save you some hassle in the future.
We sincerely hope that you found this article to be helpful in addressing you particular elbow condition or injury. Good luck, and feel better!