What is Tennis Elbow?

Man holding his elbow

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Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is a painful condition caused by overusing the elbow when lifting, gripping, or grasping. The symptoms are mainly felt in the outer (lateral) part of the upper arm near the elbow on the dominant side.

While the condition is common in tennis players, hence the name, it can also be caused by repeated motions in various activities, chores, and careers. Painters, carpenters, auto workers, cooks, and butchers are all especially prone to tennis elbow. Sports participants and manual laborers are also susceptible.

Tennis elbow is uncomfortable and painful, but most treatment options can be done at home. If caused by overuse, the condition may require individuals to avoid or modify the activity that caused the injury in the first place.

Conservative treatment usually includes rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain relievers.

What is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is usually the result of small microtears in the tendon. The tendon is the part of the muscle that attaches to the bone. On the outside of the elbow, some of the tendons in the forearm are attached to the bone.

When these muscles are used repeatedly, the tendons develop small tears. This leads to the pain and irritation associated with tennis elbow.

Symptoms of tennis elbow can include the following:

  • Elbow pain
  • Weak grasp
  • Pain in the back of the hand

Causes and Risk Factors

Age, occupation, and certain sports are all risk factors for developing tennis elbow. It's important to note that sometimes there is no known cause of tennis elbow. Here are some common causes and risk factors:

Racket Sport Athletes: People who play racket sports, like tennis, are prone to developing this injury. It’s especially associated with the backhand stroke.

Office Workers: Certain professions and work settings can increase the risk. People who work in an office setting or use the computer for work may be at increased risk due to repetitive use of the keyboard and mouse.

Workers Who Use Repetitive Arm Motions: Other jobs that require repetitive arm movement at the wrist, forearm, and elbow, such as chopping vegetables or painting a canvas, may also increase the risk of tennis elbow.

Age: People between the ages of 35 and 54 are commonly affected, but people of all ages can experience tennis elbow. It is seen in both men and women.

Trauma: Trauma to the elbow can also cause the tendons near the elbow to swell and increase the susceptibility to tennis elbow, but this is less common.

How to Treat Tennis Elbow

To diagnose tennis elbow, an exam is often needed. A doctor may apply pressure to the affected area to see where the pain originates from. You may also be asked to move your arm in a certain way to see if specific motions increase the discomfort. An MRI can also be used to confirm the diagnosis of tennis elbow.

While tennis elbow usually improves on its own, certain behavioral changes and home treatment options can expedite healing.

Tennis elbow treatments include:

  • Rest: Since tennis elbow is caused by overuse and repetitive movements, you’ll need to rest the affected arm and avoid the activity that caused the symptoms in the first place for a temporary period.
  • Activity modification: Avoid or modify the activity that caused tennis elbow symptoms
  • Ice: Ice the outer part of your elbow.

If symptoms do not improve with home remedies such as rest, activity modification, and ice, contact a health care professional to discuss additional treatment options, such as:

  • Over-the-counter medications: Consider taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to alleviate painful symptoms and reduce inflammation, if approved by a health care provider.
  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist can show you stretches and exercises to perform to improve tennis elbow.
  • Brace: Wear an elbow brace to provide pain relief and support the elbow.
  • Cortisone injections: Cortisone injections in the elbow can provide relief by reducing inflammation for several months.
  • Surgery: Reserved for severe cases, surgery options may be necessary. Recovery is usually no longer than a few months.

How to Prevent Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow is an overuse injury. To prevent it, avoid making the same hand, wrist, and arm movements—such as swinging a tennis racket or typing—over and over again. 

During recreational activities, it may be easier to make modifications such as trying a new tennis racket, warming up, or learning to use muscles in the shoulders and upper arms to relieve the forearm, elbow, and wrist. 

However, in workplace settings, preventing tennis elbow can be more challenging. Try adjusting your workplace setting to reduce strain. If you have a physical job, avoid working with a bent wrist and performing jerky movements. If you have a desk job, keep the elbow moving to prevent stiffness.

Stretches to Prevent Tennis Elbow

Performing stretches that affect the lower part of the arm, including the elbow, forearm, wrist, fingers, and hand, may help to prevent tennis elbow. Stretches for hand and wrist pain may also be helpful.

Some stretches and exercises for tennis elbow include:

  • Wrist flexor stretch: Place one arm in front of you and extend the wrist so your fingers are pointing upwards. With your other hand, pull gently on your left hand. You will feel this in your wrist, elbow, and forearm. Repeat on the other side.
  • Wrist curls: For a weighted exercise, try performing wrist curls with dumbbells. Bend over a weight bench with your wrists hanging over the edge. Bend your wrist up and down to engage the forearm and stretch the wrist. This is like a bicep curl for your wrists.
  • Finger stretches: Press the inside of your thumb to the inside of your fingers. Place a rubber band around the tips of your fingers and thumb. Slowly open and close your hand. You’ll feel a slight resistance from the rubber band. Repeat on the other side.

With some adjustments to your lifestyle, you can prevent and treat tennis elbow. Fortunately, the symptoms are usually mild and can be treated at home.

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Article Sources
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  1. Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Updated August 2020.

  2. Tennis Elbow - Lateral Epicondylitis. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Updated 2017.

  3. Tennis Elbow - Lateral Epicondylitis. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Updated 2017.