Doctors Get the Elbow from Gymnasts

Intense training activities that repeatedly put pressure on the elbow joint can lead to joint damage. The result can be a condition called osteochondritis dissecans (OCD). Five female athletes, four of whom were gymnasts, presented with elbow OCD.

OCD in the elbow usually occurs in the outside edge of the elbow joint, where the rounded end of the upper arm bone (humerus) attaches to the radial bone of the forearm. The cartilage can become separated from the bone, which causes pain, swelling, and loss of motion.

Most athletes with OCD report a "locking" sensation. The elbow gets stuck in one position and can't move. A similar condition in younger athletes (under age 12) can usually be successfully treated with rest.

However, elbow OCD from repeated trauma usually requires surgery. Even with rest, each of the athletes in this study eventually needed surgery. Removing any loose tissue from the elbow and smoothing the joint surface restores motion. Several of these athletes returned to their sport without pain.

OCD of the elbow has only a small chance of healing on its own. Delay in surgery can lead to more damage and a worse result in the end.

References: Matthijs R. Krijnen, MD, et al. Case Report. Arthroscopic Treatment of Osteochondritis Dissecans of the Capitellum: Report of 5 Female Athletes. In Arthroscopy. February 2003. Vol. 19. No. 2. Pp. 210-214.