Tennis Elbow: The Arm Pain That’s Not Just For Tennis Players
April 06, 2021
You may have heard of tennis elbow, but did you know that other athletes, such as golfers and basketball players, can have this condition? In addition, people in some occupations such as painting, carpentry and plumbing can develop tennis elbow as well.
The hallmark symptom of tennis elbow is soreness on the outside of the elbow. When you find it challenging to perform daily activities, it’s time to seek treatment.
What is Tennis Elbow?
Medically referred to as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is an inflammation of the tendons that join the muscles of the forearm to the outside of the elbow.
Tennis elbow causes pain that spreads from your elbow to your forearm or wrist when you use your hand to grasp or twist your wrist. The condition makes it difficult to perform simple tasks such as shaking hands or turning a doorknob.
Your risk for tennis elbow goes up as you get older and if you participate in activities or have an occupation that strains your arms with repetitive wrist extension, twisting or gripping.
Causes of Tennis Elbow
Tennis elbow often occurs from overuse of the forearm muscles and the tendons and muscles around the elbow joint. Typically, you feel pain or discomfort on the outside of the elbow that comes on slowly -- but sharp pain also can occur instantly.
For tennis players, the condition often is caused by poor and/or excessive use of the backhand stroke during play. The repeated action of the backhand causes stress to the forearm muscles.
Treatment for Tennis Elbow
The time it takes to seek treatment for tennis elbow can impact treatment, so it’s best to address the pain with a medical provider before it begins to significantly affect your daily activities.
There is no single treatment for tennis elbow. An occupational therapist can prescribe a specialized conservative care therapy program based on the severity of your injury and how long ago it occurred. Treatment can be surgical or nonsurgical.
Non-Surgical Treatment of Tennis Elbow
First, a physician or therapist will perform a manual exam. Imaging is typically not needed unless range of motion is lost or the joint is unstable.
If you are in an excessive amount of pain, a wrist splint may be recommended or a custom orthosis may be fabricated to minimize the tension on the muscles on the outside of the elbow. A custom orthosis is a device that is molded to and worn on a specific body part for support, rest, and protection. This can provide significant initial relief of pain.
If the pain is light to moderate, therapeutic kinesiology tape and/or a forearm strap to support these muscles in the forearm also can help with initial discomfort. A therapist will go over the tips and tricks of correctly applying and when to use this strap, also known as a counterforce brace.
A therapist will then progress you through a customized set of exercises as your tissues tolerate and recover. Initially, you will be provided stretching exercises called isotonics, and may be given various modalities that may include the use of cold, heat, ultrasound and friction massage to promote healing.
An individualized treatment plan may include education in body mechanics during self-care, home management, work, hobbies and sports to prevent a recurrence of pain and injury.
The last phase of rehabilitation is a progression to the strengthening phase for recovery of the specific muscles, as well as adjacent muscles that may have lost power during the rest and healing phase of your injury.
When Surgery is Necessary
If pain from tennis elbow does not resolve after six to eight weeks using conservative treatment, options may include surgery or other therapies.
A surgeon may suggest a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection or a surgical release or a repair. Studies suggest you can experience a full return to function as soon as three to six months after surgery.
Modifying your activity may also help. This may include adding rest periods or modifying equipment that you use at the office, factory, or for sports, or while participating in your favorite hobbies.
Marilyn Mueller, OTR/L, CHT, CLT, is an occupational therapist at UH Sheffield Health Center.
If you experience symptoms of tennis elbow such as pain or stiffness, the sports medicine elbow specialists at University Hospitals can help address your pain and restore movement. Learn more about treatment for lateral epicondylitis at UH Sports Medicine.