If you’re experiencing aching pain around your elbow or arm in general, you may have tennis elbow.
Also known as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow occurs when the elbow is overused, and there’s inflammation or minor tearing of the tendons that join the outside of the elbow to the forearm muscles.
This triggers an aching pain that can be felt throughout your upper and lower arm.
Playing tennis isn’t the only activity that may cause lateral epicondylitis.
Overuse, age, repetitive motions, and trauma can all result in this painful condition.
Tennis elbow is easy to treat – rest and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications will do the work in many instances.
This article will cover the causes of tennis elbow, symptoms you may experience, and treatment methods.
What is Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)?
Lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, occurs when the overuse of the elbow causes small tears in the tendon that connects your forearm muscles to the outside of your elbow.
The result is elbow pain, tenderness, and inflammation.
Suffering from tennis elbow can make it painful to lift, bend, or twist your affected arm and grip small objects.
Much like its name suggests, tennis elbow is a common injury for tennis players and is caused by a too-firm grip on the racquet.
But athletes aren’t the only people who develop and experience lateral epicondylitis, there are other causes.
Using your elbow too much for repetitive movements (like twisting your wrist or bending your elbow) creates an abundance of pressure on the ECRB muscle (extensor carpi radialis brevis) that’s used to keep your wrist stable.
The ECRB then weakens under the stress, causing minor tears and/or inflammation in the tendon that connects to the lateral epicondyle.
This results in lateral epicondylitis.
While anyone who overuses their elbow may experience lateral epicondylitis, the condition is most common in adults between 30-50 years old.
Any activity that requires repetitive motions in the wrist or elbow can lead to tennis elbow over time.
This includes activities such as:
- Racquet sports (tennis, squash, or badminton)
- Repetitive use of hand tools
- Playing the violin
Tennis elbow is often common in people whose jobs require repetitive motions, including construction workers, painters, carpenters, and desk jobs.
While most tennis elbow conditions develop over time, traumatic injuries directly to the elbow may also be a cause.
This can include a blow to the elbow from a fall or car accident that results in inflammation.
If you’re living with a tennis elbow, you’re likely feeling tenderness and pain on the outside of your arm, just under the elbow.
This pain will appear or worsen when you bend or lift the affected arm.
Other notable symptoms of tennis elbow include:
- Stiffness or pain when straightening your arm
- Weakened grip strength
- Constant or worsening pain in your wrist and forearm
- Pain throughout your arm when twisting or bending your wrist or forearm
- Burning sensation on the outside of your elbow or on your wrist
A medical professional will be able to diagnose your elbow pain after completing a physical exam.
To test the affected area, they’ll apply pressure to your elbow and/or observe while you move your wrist, elbow, or fingers.
If the physical exam is inconclusive, or if your doctor believes your symptoms are not caused by tennis elbow, you may be recommended to get an imaging test (like an x-ray).
Depending on the severity of your tennis elbow or how long the condition persists, there are many treatment options available.
You can treat the tennis elbow at home or get help from a medical professional.
The most important home treatment method for tennis elbow is to rest the affected arm and limit repetitive motions for several weeks.
This allows the tendons and inflammation to heal.
Ice the area for 5-10 minutes at the first sign of pain to help reduce the inflammation.
If your condition persists or worsens after a week, your doctor may recommend one of the following treatments:
- Physical therapy: A therapist will recommend a series of exercises to help strengthen the muscles surrounding your elbow. They may also use massage therapy to reduce pain in the affected area.
- Support braces: A removable brace helps to take the pressure off muscles and tendons.
- Steroid injections: Steroids work to relieve inflammation and joint pain to speed up the healing process.
- PRP Therapy: Platelet-rich plasma therapy injects concentrated platelets that aid in healing into the injured area.
- Tenotomy: This minimally-invasive procedure removes degenerative tendon tissue from inside your affected tendon.
- Extracorporeal shock wave therapy: To improve the blood flow to your elbow, sound waves are used to break up scar tissue in the affected arm.
Should your tennis elbow be an issue for longer than six months, your doctor may recommend surgery to repair the injured tendon or muscle.
There are a number of ways you can prevent tennis elbow.
Some of these include:
- Avoiding or limiting repetitive tasks
- Avoiding overextending your arm or bending it all the way
- Keeping your wrists straight when working at a desk or keyboard
- Learning the correct technique with racquet sports to avoid injury
- Stretching and warming up before engaging in sports or any activities that require repetitive movements
- Taking breaks when your arm becomes sore
- Using a looser grip to hold hand tools
- Wearing gloves with padding when handling tools
When to See a Medical Provider
If at-home treatments don’t relieve the pain or inflammation after a week, make an appointment to see a medical provider.
They’ll provide a medical exam to confirm your condition is indeed tennis elbow and recommend an alternative treatment plan to help improve your condition.
Seek medical attention immediately if you’re experiencing any of the following:
- Bumps or a protruding bone on or around your elbow
- Redness or any discoloration on or around your elbow
- Worsening pain in the affected area
- You’re unable to move or have limited sensation in your forearm, hands, and/or fingers
- You’re unable to move your arm without difficulty
- Your elbow is warm to the touch
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Forearm Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis Muscle (2021)
Percutaneous Needle Tenotomy for Tendon Injuries. (n.d.).
Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP). (2020).
Tennis Elbow - Lateral Epicondylitis. (2017).
Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis). (2020).
The Effectiveness of Shockwave Therapy in Patients with Lateral Epicondylitis. (2018).