Tennis elbow, while usually discussed as a sports-related injury, is an overuse injury that anyone can develop. When a motion becomes too repetitive, it can weaken the arm muscles and tear tendons, which will cause pain when straightening or bending the arms, lifting things, or grabbing items. Tennis elbow can usually be treated with conservative approaches and non-invasive techniques, though, in rare cases can require surgery.
What is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is a semi-common overuse injury that tends to develop in adults between 30 and 50 years old. It occurs when the tendons (the tissues that attach the muscles to bones) become overloaded. Specifically, tennis elbow is the inflammation, degeneration, and tearing of the lateral epicondyle tendon.
The “tennis” elbow designation can be misleading, implying that tennis players or athletes are at risk for the injury, but anyone who regularly performs repetitive activities with the vigorous use of forearms, wrists, or hands is at risk. For sports players, there are specific ones that are at more risk than others for developing tennis elbow, such as:
- Pickleball players
- Baseball players
Even some professional fields and hobbyists can develop tennis elbow due to the repetitive motions:
- Auto mechanics
- Assembly line workers
- Gardeners and Landscapers
Difference Between Tennis and Golfer Elbow
Golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow are thought of as the same thing by a lot of people, but they are two distinct injuries. Golfer’s elbow affects the inner tendon (medial epicondyle) and is medically known as medial epicondylitis while tennis elbow affects the outer part of the elbow. While they are both types of overuse injuries, the fact they affect separate tendons on either side of the elbow is very important.
Causes of Tennis Elbow
As muscles get tired, the tendons take on more of the load they’re carrying. When this happens, overloading becomes more likely, and that results in inflammation and pain. If overloading is frequent, it will create a degenerative condition called tendinosis, which leads to the tendon tearing.
Tennis elbow usually develops from overuse and over time, but it can also develop through a sudden arm or elbow injury.
Tennis Elbow Symptoms
Since tennis elbow usually develops over time, the symptoms do as well with pain gradually worsening over weeks and months. When tennis elbow symptoms become noticeable, they usually include:
How is Tennis Elbow Treated: Management and Treatment Options
To diagnose tennis elbow a physical exam is needed. During the exam, a patient can expect their healthcare provider to check the elbow joint for pain, stiffness, and swelling, and answer questions about activities that increase or cause the pain. Many doctors will order imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis and ensure no other conditions are causing the elbow pain. These tests include:
- An EMG to check for compressed nerves
- X-rays to rule out a broken bone or arthritis in the elbow
- An MRI, ultrasound, or CT scan to find the level of tendon and muscle damage that may have developed.
Treatment for tennis elbow isn’t always needed, often it will heal on its own with little medical intervention, though it can take a year or more to fully recover without treatment.
For a faster recovery and to help with pain, as well as other symptoms, there are non-surgical and minimally invasive methods:
- Using support braces to take tension off the tendons and muscles
- Physical therapy to help strengthen the muscles in the forearm
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to help ease elbow pain and inflammation, like ibuprofen
- Steroid injections to temporarily relieve joint pain and inflammation in the elbow
- Take a break or decrease activities that contribute to tennis elbow and allow the tendons to recover
- If scar tissue is found in the elbow, extracorporeal shock wave therapy can help break it up so that blood flow improves to the damaged areas in the elbow
- If surgery is recommended, there is a minimally invasive procedure that removes the degenerative tendon tissue called a tenotomy.
Make an Appointment with our Elbow Specialists
If you’ve suffered any of the symptoms listed above, we encourage you to make an appointment with our elbow specialists!
We at Proliance Pacific Rim Orthopedic Surgeons strive to help our patients achieve a return to normal activity through compassionate and exceptional care using evidence-based medicine in a patient-friendly environment. We are committed to bringing you a high standard of care that is patient-focused, with the goal of improving your quality of life.