What is tennis elbow, and how is it treated?
Tennis elbow, officially called lateral epicondylitis, is a painful condition that occurs when the tendons that attach your elbow to your forearm become inflamed. These tendons are bands of tough tissue that connect the muscles of your lower arm to the bone.
Tennis elbow is a type of tendinitis that affects up to three percent of the population, most often adults between the ages of 30 and 50. It’s an overuse injury caused by repetitive activity, and it’s the most common reason people see their doctors for elbow pain.
When you regularly engage your arm in a repetitive motion, the tendons in your elbow can develop small tears. This leads to inflammation and pain, which can put stress on the rest of your arm, making it painful to lift and grip things.
Typically, you can guess that you have tennis elbow if it’s difficult for you to:
- Lift objects
- Make a fist
- Grip objects (like a tennis racket)
- Open a door
- Shake hands with someone
- Raise your hand
- Straighten your wrist
What causes tennis elbow?
While playing tennis can indeed cause tennis elbow, less than five percent of people actually get it that way. You can get it from other racquet sports, like squash, racquetball, fencing or weight lifting. You can also get it from activities that force you to move your arm the same way over and over, such as:
- Tree cutting (repetitive use of a chainsaw)
- Playing some types of musical instruments
Butchers, cooks and assembly-line workers are susceptible to this type of injury. You’re also likely to suffer from tennis elbow at some point if you spend a lot of time doing carpentry, typing, knitting, painting or raking.
How to treat tennis elbow
Tennis elbow is easy to treat and often goes away quickly. However, it can become a chronic condition if left untreated. The most important thing to do is to rest the injured tendon, allowing the small tears in the tendon to heal. Depending on how severe your injury is, you might need to rest your tendon for days, weeks or months. If treatment doesn’t help, surgery is the next option.
Additional ways to treat your tennis elbow include:
- Reduce pain. Apply an ice pack to the afflicted area for 10 to 15 minutes at a time several times a day. You can even take hot baths if they make your injury feel better. You can also try taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine, like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen or naproxen.
- Stop repeating the motion that caused the injury in the first place. Learn new ways to make certain movements, and use different equipment to reduce the stress on your forearm.
- Try wrist or elbow splints to relieve the pressure on your arm.
- Protect your arm from further injury by wearing an elbow strap.
- Perform range-of-motion exercises to lessen stiffness and increase your arm’s flexibility. You can perform these exercises three to five times a day.
What to do if treatment doesn’t work
If you continue participating in the activity that harmed your tendon in the first place, you could cause severe tendon damage that requires surgery. If your symptoms don’t go away after a while, your doctor might prescribe one of the following:
- Corticosteroid injections to relieve pain for a short time. This is a short-term solution, since having many injections within one year can be harmful to the tendon.
- Ultrasound therapy to help your tendon heal and stop pain.
- Surgery to heal tennis elbow. While this is uncommon (less than five out of 100 cases), it could be a treatment option if elbow pain doesn’t improve after six to 12 months of tendon rest and rehabilitation. During the surgery, the surgeon cuts (releases) the tendon, and/or removes damaged tissue from the tendon. In some cases, the surgeon can repair tears in the tendon. You may be a candidate for surgery if your injury is from a sudden, or acute, injury that created large tears in your tendon or severe damage in your elbow. You might also be considered if your injury is the result of chronic overuse, and more than six to 12 months of nonsurgical treatment haven’t relieved your pain. Finally, you might be considered for surgery if your pain continues despite other treatment, or you’ve had a corticosteroid shot and it hasn’t helped.
Learn more about treating your tennis elbow
If you think you might have tennis elbow and would like to learn more about possible treatment options, schedule an evaluation with Onward Orthopedics today by submitting an online form or calling one of our friendly Patient Care Managers at 210.880.3823.