Suffering from tennis elbow? Don’t ignore its symptoms or delay treatment

Published on: 13 January 2022, 18:32 pm IST

We've often heard about the term tennis elbow. But what does it entail? An expert tells you all that you must know about this condition.

Tennis elbow
Don't take your pain lightly. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
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Have you heard of a tennis elbow? Also known as lateral epicondylitis, is a condition characterized by painful inflammation of the elbow joint. This is caused by repetitive motions and increasing stress on the tendons (tissues connecting bones and muscles).

The pain typically occurs in the attachment area of forearm muscles and the bony bump on the outer region of the elbow. Apart from playing tennis or other racquet sports, any activities involving repetitive motion of the elbow, wrist can lead to tennis elbow.

Tennis elbow symptoms

Some common signs and symptoms of tennis elbow include:

1. Pain and tenderness in the elbow that is initially mild and gradually worsens over weeks and months

2. Generally no specific injury associated with the symptoms

3. Pain radiating from the outside of the elbow to the forearm and wrist
4. Increased pain while shaking hands or gripping an object
5. Weakened grip strength
6. Pain and weakness of the hand while lifting things or using any tools
7. Worsening symptoms with forearm activities such as holding a racquet, opening a door, etc, lifting an object.
8. Sometimes, elbow pain may increase during night time.

Tennis elbow causes

Tennis elbow can be caused due to the following factors:

1. Elbow overuse and muscle strain: Repetitive movements of the elbow cause strain on the forearm muscles and a series of tears occur in the tendons, which connect forearm muscles to the bony prominence in the outer region of the elbow. This leads to pain and inflammation.

tennis elbow
Here are the causes of tennis elbow. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

2. Activities: Activities that require vigorous and repetitive movement of the forearm muscles or extension of the wrist and hand. Some of these activities may include:

* Playing tennis/other racket sports
* Carpenter work
* Plumbing work
* Painting
* Butcher work
* Repeated use of computer mouse
* Weight lifting.

Treating tennis elbow

Non-surgical interventions

A majority of patients affected with tennis elbow can be successfully treated with non-surgical interventions. These include:

1. Rest: The first step is to allow the affected arm to rest for several weeks. This means to avoid participating in sports or other activities which may cause painful symptoms. A brace may be provided to prevent movements and hold the muscles and tendons in place.

2. Medication: Over-the-counter pain relief medications such as ibuprofen may be prescribed to reduce pain and swelling.

3. Physical therapy: A physiotherapist guiding through various muscle strengthening exercise for the affected forearm. This may include arm strengthening exercises, ice massage or muscle stimulating techniques.

4. Ultrasound: This type of therapy involving passing high-frequency sound waves through the painful region of the arm to reduce pain and inflammation, and allow for quick recovery.

5. Steroid injections: Steroids may be injected directly into the affected area of the arm, to help reduce inflammation.

6. Platelet-rich plasma injection: This process involves extraction of platelets from a sample of blood drawn from the arm. These platelets have a high concentration of growth factors, which are injected into the affected area.

tennis elbow
You can take many steps to treat tennis elbow, including steroids. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Surgical interventions

Doctors may recommend surgery in patients who do not respond to non-surgical treatments for 6-12 months. Surgery involves removal of damaged muscle and reattachment of healthy muscle to the bone. The surgical approach is decided based on patient condition and other factors.

Surgery may be performed by passing a small tube through the elbow (arthroscopic) or through a large incision directly over the elbow (open surgery).

Risk factors of tennis elbow

1. Age: Although tennis elbow can occur in all age groups, it is commonly observed in adults between the ages of 30 to 50 years.

2. Occupation: People with jobs involving repeated arm and wrist movements are at an increased risk of developing tennis elbow. These may include carpenters, plumbers, painters, cooks, butchers, etc.

3. Sports: As the name suggests, playing tennis with a poor stroke technique is a known risk factor. Other racket sports played with poor techniques can also increase the risk of tennis elbow.

tennis elbow
Playing sports is healthy but poor stroke technique can increase the risk of tennis elbow  . Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about tennis elbow

Question-1: What is the best treatment for tennis elbow?

Answer: The treatment of tennis elbow is decided based on the patient’s condition. It involves rest using a brace, medications, physiotherapy, ultrasound or steroid injections. Surgery is indicated when patients do not respond to non-surgical interventions after 6-12 months.

Question-2: What is tennis elbow caused by?

Answer: Tennis elbow is caused due to elbow overuse and muscle strain occurring in activities that require vigorous and repetitive movement of the forearm muscles or extension of the wrist and hand. These activities may include playing tennis/other racket sports, painting, carpenter work, plumbing, butcher work, weight lifting, etc.

Question-3: What is the pain of tennis elbow like?

Answer: Tennis elbow presents with an aching pain or burning on the outside of the elbow, which gradually worsens over weeks and months. The pain may radiate from outside of the elbow to the forearm and wrist.

Question-4: Can tennis elbow heal on its own?

Answer: Tennis elbow can heal on its own with appropriate amount of rest and measures to reduce pain and swelling.

Dr Kesavan A R Dr Kesavan A R

Senior Consultant - Institute of Orthopaedics and Joint Replacement, Gleneagles Global Health City, Chennai

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