You don't have to be a tennis player, or even an athlete, to develop this painful condition that is clinically known as lateral epicondylitis. It often develops after overuse or a repeated action involving the forearm muscles. Pain is felt on the outside of the elbow and may travel down the forearm towards the wrist and thumb.
Key points helpful to know:
Tennis elbow is often caused by repeated stress on the muscles of the forearm such as from sports or use of certain tools, it can sometimes be due to a fall or knock on the elbow.
Symptoms of tennis elbow can include pain or weakness when gripping or lifting, resulting in pain around the elbow and into the forearm.
Treatment of tennis elbow includes: rest, cold compression, physio guided exercises, medication to reduce pain and inflammation, use of braces.
What causes tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow is usually caused by overusing the forearm muscles that are attached to your elbow. Activities involving repeated wrist extension and supination (the motion of turning your palm to face upwards) are often found to be triggers to the onset of pain. Our bodies can cope with a certain amount of over load - if it becomes too much then our tissues start to breakdown and we develop an injury.
If the wrist extensor muscles are strained, tiny tears and inflammation can develop in the common wrist extensor tendon attachment, near the bony lump felt on the outside of your elbow (the lateral epicondyle).
Illustration, the origin of extensor muscles at the elbow, courtesy of The Journal of Musculoskeletal Medicine.
Pain that occurs on the inner side of the elbow is known as golfer's elbow.
How do I know I have tennis elbow?
You may notice pain on the outside of the elbow, which may travel down the forearm when:
Lifting or bending your arm.
When gripping small objects, such as a pen.
When twisting your forearm, such as turning a door handle or opening a jar.
After working at a computer.
You may also find it difficult to fully straighten your elbow joint.
If you think you may have tennis elbow, a healthcare professional or physio will be able to diagnose this for you.
How is it treated?
To start with you will need to rest or avoid aggravating activities and movements. If you think playing tennis is the trigger, then you may need a few weeks off. You could also try increasing your grip size. If working at the computer is a trigger then a desk assessment or a look at your desk ergonomics may be a good start. Physiotherapists can help advise you with your desk set-up.
Some people find using ice or a cold compress helps. Use frequently throughout the day for about 15-20 minutes. Speak to a pharmacist as painkillers such as paracetamol can help and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen or anti-inflammatory gel can help.
Physiotherapy can help if rest and simple painkillers don't help. What we do know with tennis elbow is pain causes underuse of the affected arm and further weakening in the tendon structure. To get back to doing your activities you need a healthy strong tendon, so a physio can advise you on the right type of exercises, weight, sets and reps to do to heal.
A physio can also offer massage and acupuncture to help healing.
Some people find wearing an elbow brace (called an Epiclasp) can help to. You can buy these cheaply online.
The overall good news is tennis elbow nearly always clears up by itself in time. Most people within a year - but that's quite a long time to wait if you've hobbies and activities you enjoy doing that you currently can't take part in.
If you're struggling come and see one of our MSK Physios, Sarah or Rowena, and they'll be able to advise and get you on the road to recovery! You can book online here or give the clinic a call on 01932 645320.