What is tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow, technically known as lateral epicondylitis, is a swelling of the tendons on the outside (lateral) part of the elbow. These tendons, which are comprised of tough tissue, attach the forearm muscles to the elbow. Tennis elbow is the most common overuse elbow syndrome, and while it can be caused by activities other than tennis, nearly half of all tennis players get this condition at some point in their careers.
Tennis elbow is a typical repetitive strain injury (RSI). Occurring largely in those from ages 30 to 50, it is a result of chronic fatigue and irritation of the muscles and tendons on the lateral elbow. These are responsible for lifting and extension of the wrist and the fingers.
What are the causes?
While tennis elbow can be caused by overuse such as repetitive motion, trauma such as a blow to the elbow less commonly can lead to swelling and subsequent degeneration of the tendon, making a person more prone to the form of overuse injury.
Sports or other activities that lend themselves to tennis elbow include:
- Weight lifting
- Sports which include throwing
- Computer use
Studies have shown that auto workers, cooks and even butchers get tennis elbow more often than those in the general population. Performing any or all of these activities with poor technique or improper equipment can also contribute to tennis elbow. However, sometimes there is no apparent cause for the condition.
What are the symptoms
Although there are some commonly expected symptoms, tennis elbow can manifest itself differently for different people. Generally, however, sufferers can expect:
- Elbow pain on the lateral side, which may also radiate to the forearm and even hand
- Pain that can be sharp, dull, aching, throbbing and/or stinging
- Pain that worsens with prolonged lack of activity of the elbow
- Tingling or numbness in the side of the hand and pinkie finger of the affected arm
- Elbow stiffness
- Muscle spasm or twitch in the area
- Weakened grip strength
What are the treatment options?
Tennis elbow treatment is characterized by a number of effective methods to help one heal. These include:
Rest–The first thing to do is to cut back on movements and activities that cause pain in the affected elbow, forearm, and wrist.
Medications–These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (e.g. ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen).
Cold therapy–Icing or cold packs can reduce pain and swelling.
Exercises–There are a variety of easy-to-perform tennis elbow exercises that stretch and strengthen the surrounding areas of the shoulder, arm and hand. A physical therapist can initiate therapy and create a program of appropriate self-help exercises.
Massage–Massage is effective in relieving chronic pain by manipulating the soft tissue of the affected muscles surrounding the inflamed elbow tendons.
Ergonomic adjustments–Tennis elbow is now tellingly also called Computer Elbow. Consider adjusting computer desk chair height, keyboard and mouse; use ergonomic mouse (with wrist support).
Equipment check, especially for sports such as tennis–Experiment with racquet size, type, weight, string tension etc. Consider similar adjustments for other relevant sports/work equipment.
Supportive devices–Splinting, strapping or taping of the elbow can help to relieve pain and prevent aggravating motion, such as hyperextension of the elbow.
Pain-relief injections–These can be very helpful, and are one of the many effective treatments offered by a pain management specialist.
Surgery–Although the vast majority of those with tennis elbow recover without surgery, in the event of severe damage and symptoms that do not resolve in 6 to 12 months, tennis elbow surgery can be an option.
Is the condition reversible?
Tennis elbow is considered a self-limiting condition. This means that it will eventually resolve on its own, or that it has no long-term detrimental impacts on one’s health. It is estimated that watchful waiting of tennis elbow may result in satisfactory recovery in four out of five people. However, because tendons heal slowly, it can take months or even a year to resolve.
Even though the condition is self-limiting, that does not mean that the pain and disability aren’t troubling, particularly if that means the condition impacts functioning or doing the activities of one’s choice. That’s why the use of conservative treatments in particular is worth pursuing. The use of these treatments can mitigate symptoms and help to reverse the condition.
At Nova Spine & Pain Centers, we specialize in treating conditions like tennis elbow. Contact us today to see how we can help get you back into the tennis game, or any other activities impacted by tennis elbow or other chronic pain conditions.