Tennis Elbow

If you play a sport or have a job in which you repeat an arm movement over and over, you have a greater risk of developing tennis elbow, a painful overuse condition. The discomfort you feel with tennis elbow is caused by inflammation of the tendons that connect forearm muscles in the outer elbow. Overuse causes both the muscles and tendons of the forearm to become irritated.

Tennis elbow symptoms usually appear gradually and intensify with time. There is usually no specific injury associated with the start of symptoms.

Symptoms of tennis elbow may include:

  • Pain on the outside of your elbow
  • Increased pain when gripping an object
  • Weakened grip strength

Tennis Elbow Diagnosis

To diagnose your tennis elbow, your doctor will look for signs and symptoms of muscle and tendon wear and tear. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, lifestyle, and when and how your elbow symptoms developed – and what makes them worse. If you have injured your elbow in the past, or have nerve conditions or rheumatoid arthritis, be sure to tell your doctor. The diagnostic process will probably entail the following:

  • Physical examination. Your doctor will test your arm flexion and extension against resistance to see if they produce pain, in addition to other physical assessments.
  • Imaging tests. Your doctor will probably start with an X-ray to rule out stress fracture or arthritis, or an MRI to rule out referred neck issues or other soft tissue problems. Depending on your symptoms, tests like electromyography or CT scans might be useful as well.

Tennis Elbow Treatment

Your treatment plan will entail nonoperative treatment first, as it proves successful for most people.

Nonsurgical treatment options include:

  • Rest. Refraining from the repetitive motions that irritated your tendons and muscles is often all that is needed
  • Ice. Ice application, both at physical therapy and at home, will ease swelling and the pain associated with it
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These can reduce pain and inflammation
  • Orthotics. A brace can help the muscles and tendons in your forearm rest and heal faster
  • Physical therapy. Not only can physical therapy make you stronger; it can provide education for you to learn and practice proper form so that you don’t incur overuse complications again
  • Corticosteroid injections. An injection can reduce swelling and pain for months.

In the event that non-operative treatments do not provide relief within a year, your doctor may advise surgery to remove damaged muscle and secure muscle-to-bone attachment.

Surgical approach will depend on your injury, health, lifestyle, and goals. Open surgery (with multiple elbow incisions) is the most common and typically performed on an outpatient basis. Arthroscopic surgery, which uses tiny incisions, is a less invasive outpatient surgery.

Which treatment is right for you will depend on the scope of your injury, your general health, and your personal needs. Talk with your doctor about the options.

Who’s at Risk for Tennis Elbow?

Evaluate your risk factors:

  • Age. Tennis elbow is most frequently diagnosed in people aged 30 to 50, although it is seen across the age spectrum
  • Occupation. If your job requires repetitive arm motions (e.g., janitor, painter, carpenter, butcher), you are at a greater risk of having tennis elbow
  • Sports participation. Sports like tennis, in which you repeat the same stroke or motion, contribute to tennis elbow – especially if you don’t use proper technique (In racquet sports like tennis, improper stroke technique and improper equipment are risk factors)

How Can an Elbow Brace Help?

Wearing an elbow brace helps to aid your recovery from tennis elbow in several ways:

  • Stabilizes the elbow and minimizes excess or awkward movements
  • Minimizes the load and force of the lateral elbow during daily activities
  • Reduces stress placed on the injured tissue

What’s the Difference between Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow?

  • Location: The pain and swelling from tennis elbow is felt on the outside of your elbow, while golfer’s elbow discomfort is experienced on the inside of the elbow
  • Tendon Affected: Tennis elbow afflicts the lateral epicondyle tendon, while golfer’s elbow affects the medial epicondyle tendon

Learn more about the anatomy of the elbow