Elbow pain can be as frustrating as it is debilitating. Injuries to the elbow are common and affect 1 to 3% of the American population. This rate is even higher in athletes who play sports such as tennis, baseball, and basketball.
The elbow has many nerves and blood vessels that flow through it. Therefore, it can be challenging to determine the exact cause of the pain. It could be a ligament tear, inflammation, or a pinched nerve. The only way to identify the culprit is with an elbow scan. Giving doctors a glimpse into the joint can help them better diagnose your condition and treat your pain.
Why do I need an elbow scan?
An elbow scan is a radiology exam that provides doctors the insight to see damage or issues affecting the elbow. You may need an elbow scan if you have experienced:
- Increasing elbow pain without explanation.
- Sudden numbness or tingling in the forearm.
- Injury or blunt force trauma.
- Cracking or popping sounds when extending the elbow.
If you already have a history of elbow issues, a scan can be a preventive way to monitor the elbow's condition over time. A scan can also help doctors assess how an injury is healing.
What does an elbow scan show?
An elbow scan will look at the various structures within the elbow joint. These images can show:
- Ligaments and tendons
- Blood vessels
Your physician will use these images to determine if any damage or abnormalities in your elbow are causing your pain.
An elbow scan can detect common injuries such as:
- Ligament tears
- Cartilage degeneration
- Pinched nerves
Common causes of elbow pain
Elbow pain is typically caused by one of two things: injury or repetitive movement.
- Injury. The elbow joint is resilient, but that doesn’t mean it’s invulnerable to injury. Any degree of fracture to the humerus, ulna, or radius–the bones that make up the elbow joint–will affect the function of the elbow. The elbow is also prone to hyperextension if enough force is applied. This can cause minor fractures or bone chips that can cause pain.
- Repetitive movement. Repetitive movement causes a specific type of injury known as overuse. Overuse injuries of the elbow can cause nerves that run along the elbow to become compressed. This type of injury commonly causes the pain associated with tennis elbow. As the nerve rubs against the bony protrusion, it can become inflamed or compressed. Overuse injuries often affect athletes or people who have jobs performing repetitive tasks.
Common elbow pain-related diagnoses
Several conditions could be causing or contributing to your elbow pain:
- Bursitis (joint inflammation)
- Bone fracture
- Tennis elbow
Some diagnoses can be corrected through mild physical therapy, while others need a more robust treatment plan.
Types of scans for the elbow
There are a few different scan options available when your doctor is trying to diagnose the condition causing your elbow pain.
CT scans for the elbow
CT scans, or computerized tomography scans, use concentrated X-ray beams to take pictures of the elbow joint from different angles. A computer puts these pictures together to form a cohesive image of the elbow.
A CT scan of the elbow can show:
CTs are helpful in locating damage and spotting fractures, deterioration, or inflammation in the elbow joint.
MRI for the elbow
An elbow MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is similar to a CT scan, but instead of using X-rays, it uses radio waves and a magnetic field to generate pictures of the elbow. An elbow MRI will take longer since it produces more detailed images of the soft tissues surrounding the elbow than a CT.
An MRI can be used to diagnose:
- Broken bones
- Pinched or compressed nerves
- Ligament tears
Ultrasounds for the elbow
An elbow ultrasound uses soundwaves to record images of the elbow. While they cannot see through the bone, they are excellent at viewing different tissues surrounding the elbow. This makes them great for diagnosing soft tissue disorders.
Ultrasounds help doctors visualize:
- Blood vessels
X-ray for the elbow
An elbow X-ray uses ionizing radiation to take an image of the bones and soft tissue in the elbow. Strong visibility all the way around the bones and tissues makes X-rays great for diagnosing breaks and fractures. They can even detect tiny shards of bone that could be lodged in soft tissues in the case of a severe fracture.
X-rays produce quick results and make excellent diagnostic instruments for doctors treating injured elbows.
How much does an elbow scan cost?
An elbow scan can cost up to $4,000. However, the price can vary depending on:
- The type of scan being performed
- Insurance coverage
- Your copay
- Your insurance network status
- Scanning location
How long does an elbow scan take?
The length of an elbow scan depends on the type of scan you’re getting. X-rays and CT scans take the least time–about 20 to 30 minutes. MRIs and ultrasounds take closer to 30 or 45 minutes.
Find an elbow scan medical imaging center near me
An elbow scan can be essential for identifying a problem or keeping an eye on an existing injury. If you need an elbow scan, check out scan.com’s scan search tool to find an imaging center near you.