Tennis elbow – also called lateral epicondylitis – affects the tendons in your elbow. It is a painful condition that can develop when the tendons become overworked, often due to making repetitive arm and wrist movements. Tennis elbow is one of the most common causes of persistent elbow pain, affecting around 1-3% of the population. It may last between six months and two years but most people recover fully within a year.
What is tennis elbow?
Overusing the muscles in your forearm – which are used to flex and straighten your wrist – can result in damage to the tendons that attach these muscles to the outside of the elbow (the bony bump that you can feel). These tendons may develop tiny tears, resulting in pain and weakness in your arm. Blood flow to the area is not strong, so the tears have a hard time healing quickly. Mild cases of tennis elbow can be treated with rest, painkillers and ice to relieve swelling. More severe cases may require treatment.
Symptoms of tennis elbow
You may have tennis elbow if you are experiencing pain on the outside of the elbow which may spread to your forearm and wrist. Your wrist and forearm may feel weak and you may have difficulty gripping, turning a doorknob or shaking hands. You may struggle to hold a pen or open a jar. It may also be painful to lift or bend your arm or fully extend it. If you have pain on the inside of your elbow, this is known as golfer’s elbow.
Who is at risk?
Anyone who makes repetitive arm movements can be at risk of tennis elbow. As the name suggests, playing certain types of sport such as tennis can cause this type of injury. However, many different occupations also increase the likelihood of developing tennis elbow. Painters and decorators, carpenters and cooks are also prone to the condition. It occurs most commonly in adults between 30 and 50, although it can develop at any age.
Diagnosing tennis elbow
As well as asking you about your symptoms, a doctor will carry out a physical examination and may ask you to move your elbow and wrist in a particular way as well as applying pressure to the painful area. An X-ray or other type of imaging scan may be used to rule out other potential causes of pain in your elbow.
Treatments for tennis elbow
The normal treatment for tennis elbow is to rest the affected arm and take painkillers or anti-inflammatories. An ice pack several times a day may help to relieve swelling and pain and a physiotherapist may recommend wearing a brace to reduce strain on your injured tendons. Certain exercises may help to stretch and strengthen the forearm muscles.
In more severe cases, you may need specialist medical treatment. These involve increasing blood flow to help heal the area, such as a technique called dry needling.. Rarely, surgery may be needed to remove the damaged area of tissue and promote healing of the healthy tissue.
How to prevent tennis elbow
One of the causes of tennis elbow among sportsmen and women can be poor technique. Ensuring you receive professional coaching can ensure that you maximise your performance while minimising any risk of injury. Always warm up properly before a game and consider swapping to a more lightweight racquet or making the grip size bigger to avoid straining your tendons.
If your condition is work-related, it may be harder to prevent it but modifying your activities, with the support of any co-workers, and not putting too much stress on the muscles around your elbow will help to avoid aggravating your symptoms. An occupational health adviser may be able to suggest alternative ways of using your wrist and elbow so that more of the load is taken by the larger muscles of your shoulder.
Orthopaedic Consultant & Surgeon | London
Thames Shoulder & Elbow are able to provide advice and support to anyone experiencing symptoms affecting the upper limbs (shoulder, upper arm, elbow, forearm and wrist).
Telephone: 020 376 15987
Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, St John’s Wood – Directions
BMI The Syon Clinic, Brentford – Directions
HCA Chiswick Health Centre, Chiswick – Directions
West Middlesex University Hospital, Chelsea and Westminster Foundation Trust, Isleworth – Directions