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Don’t let the name mislead you; “tennis elbow” doesn’t just affect tennis players. Tennis elbow can affect anyone who uses their elbow and forearm repeatedly or vigorously – either from sports activities or the activities of daily living. While symptoms can vary from mild morning stiffness to irritating, burning pain, there are many treatment options that can get you moving comfortably again.
What is Tennis Elbow?
Lateral epicondylitis, otherwise known as tennis elbow, is a painful condition caused by microscopic tears and inflammation in the tendon that attaches the forearm to the outside of the elbow. It is caused by repetitive motion and is frequently found in tennis players, golfers, baseball players, and softball players. However, anyone who repeatedly bends and straightens their elbow is at risk.
Most people who develop tennis elbow are between the ages of 30 and 50, though it can occur in any age group. It affects men and women equally.
People who work in careers that require repeated use of the elbow and forearm or that place stress on these areas are more prone to tennis elbow. Some high-risk groups include painters, plumbers, carpenters, auto workers, butchers, and cooks.
Symptoms of Tennis Elbow
Your elbow is a joint that is comprised of muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The forearm muscle helps extend the arm and stabilize the wrist, and is attached to the outside of the elbow by a tendon. When the tendon is overworked or overstressed, microscopic damage and degeneration occur, weakening the area where the tendon anchors the muscle to the bone, and resulting in tennis elbow.
Symptoms can include:
- Pain, burning, and tenderness on the outside of the elbow that may travel down the length of the forearm
- Weak grip strength
- Pain that worsens with activity – especially movements that involve lifting, gripping, and grasping – and lessens with rest
- Morning stiffness in the elbow
Usually, tennis elbow develops in the dominant arm, though both arms can be affected. In most cases, the symptoms develop gradually and progress from mild to more severe over weeks or months. Rarely are the symptoms associated with a specific injury or trauma to the elbow.
Diagnosing Tennis Elbow
If you experience elbow pain that persists more than a week or two, you should be seen by an orthopaedic specialist. He or she will do a comprehensive examination to determine the source of your pain. Your doctor will ask about your medical history, occupation, and any sports or other activities.
In addition to completing a physical exam, your doctor may request x-rays, an MRI, or an EMG test to rule out other diagnoses.
Tennis Elbow: Home Remedies
There are several things you can try at home to ease the discomfort of tennis elbow and promote healing:
- Rest your forearm, wrist, and fingers from activities that aggravate the tendon. Depending on the extent of your damage, rest may be required for weeks or even months.
- Use ice packs to decrease inflammation when you start experiencing pain. This should be done for 15 minutes at a time, several times a day.
- If heat feels better than cold, try warm compresses or a warm shower or bath to relieve discomfort.
- A brace that is worn below the elbow and over the forearm muscle can be worn during activity to reduce tension on the tendon and relieve pain.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be used to reduce pain and inflammation.
- Gentle stretching can help your tendon heal and avoid stiffness throughout the process.
- If you play tennis, changing equipment can help address symptoms. The size and stiffness of the racquet and the tightness of the strings all impact the amount of stress your forearm must bear.
Tennis Elbow: Medical Treatments
If at-home remedies do not work, there are several treatments your doctor can prescribe to address tennis elbow:
- Physical therapy can be an effective way to treat tennis elbow non-surgically. A physical therapist can use a combination of modalities, including stretching and strengthening exercises, ultrasound, ice massage, and muscle stimulation.
- Steroid injections can help reduce inflammation, and thus pain, in your tendon.
- In some cases, surgery is the only option, especially if your tennis elbow causes debilitating pain or has not responded to conservative treatments. Both open surgery and arthroscopic surgery are options, depending on the extent of your tendon damage. If you require surgery, your orthopaedic surgeon will likely remove the diseased muscle and reattach healthy muscle to the bone. Post-surgery physical therapy will be prescribed to regain strength and range of motion, and a full recovery can take up to four to six months.
Recovering from Tennis Elbow
Tennis elbow can be incredibly painful and prevent you from participating in the activities you enjoy. It may even inhibit you from performing your job without discomfort. If you think you are suffering from tennis elbow, give Countryside Orthopaedics a call. We can diagnose your pain and customize a treatment plan that meets your needs and puts you on the road to recovery.