As its name implies, playing tennis can cause tennis elbow. But you may be surprised to learn that you don’t have to spend time on the courts to suffer from this painful condition. Learn the causes and symptoms of tennis elbow, and steps you can take to keep working and playing pain-free.
What Is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) involves the bony knob on the outside of the elbow (lateral side) where tendons attach muscles to bones. Tennis elbow causes a breakdown of this attachment, often resulting in tiny tears that lead to pain when you lift or grip. The pain and soreness may extend down into the forearm and the back part of the hand.
What Causes Tennis Elbow?
Overuse: While tennis is sometimes at fault (backhand being the main culprit), tennis elbow can occur with any type of activity that involves repetitive twisting of the wrist. Cooks, plumbers and painters, as well as construction, assembly line, and office workers whose jobs place stress on the tendon/bone attachment are more likely to develop the condition.
Trauma: A direct blow to the elbow may cause swelling of the tendon and then later, a breakdown of the tendon causing tennis elbow. A sudden forceful activity can also injure the tendon.
Tennis Elbow Symptoms
- Gradually increasing pain in your elbow/arm area.
- Tenderness to the touch and swelling of the bony structures and/or the muscles or tendons of the outside of the elbow
- Gradual weakening of your grip or grasp.
How to Manage the Pain
If your pain started within the past month, try icing and massaging the outside of your elbow using either a circular or up-and-down motion. If you’ve had the symptoms more than a month, apply ice or heat, whichever is more comfortable. Also try massage.
Over-the-counter braces may be helpful to use during activities that make your symptoms feel worse.
If your tennis elbow stems from sports, ask a coach about changing your technique or your sports equipment. If you play tennis, for example, changing the grip size of your racket may help.
Think about whether you should cut back on your playing time.
When to Seek Professional Care
Any time you have concerns, consult your doctor. Wait no longer than a month to see your doctor if this is the first time you’re experiencing tennis elbow symptoms and have not seen a medical professional before. If you’ve previously had tennis elbow, seek help if conservative home treatments don’t help you in four to eight weeks.
Your doctor may refer you to a physical, occupational, or hand therapist who can treat your condition with special techniques that reduce pain and promote healing. They may also instruct you on therapeutic exercise (stretching and strengthening) and proper ways to use your elbow and at work and play.
Surgery may be considered if therapy has not resulted in relief of symptoms, and your pain keeps you from being able to do the things you want or need to do every day.