Tennis elbow is a condition that causes pain around the outside of the elbow. It’s clinically known as lateral epicondylitis.
It often occurs after strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint.
You may notice pain:
On the outside of your upper forearm, just below the bend of your elbow
– 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
– You may also find it difficult to fully extend your forearm.
What causes tennis elbow?
The elbow joint is surrounded by muscles that move your elbow, wrist and fingers. The tendons in your elbow join the bones and muscles together and control the muscles of your forearm.
Tennis elbow is usually caused by overusing the muscles attached to your elbow and used to straighten your wrist. If the muscles and tendons are strained, tiny tears and inflammation can develop near the bony lump (the lateral epicondyle) on the outside of your elbow.
As the name suggests, tennis elbow is sometimes caused by playing tennis. However, it is often caused by other activities that place repeated stress on the elbow joint, such as decorating or playing the violin.
Pain that occurs on the inner side of the elbow is often known as Golfer’s Elbow.
When to see your GP
If your elbow pain is caused by a strenuous or repetitive activity, you should avoid the activity until your symptoms improve.
Visit your GP if the pain in your elbow persists, despite resting it for a few days. They will check for swelling and tenderness, and carry out some simple tests, such as asking you to extend your fingers and flex your wrist with your elbow extended.
Further tests, such as an ultrasound scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will only be needed if it is thought your pain is being caused by nerve damage.
Treating tennis elbow
Tennis elbow is a self-limiting condition, which means it will eventually get better without treatment.
However, there are treatments that can be used to improve your symptoms and speed up your recovery.
It is important you rest your injured arm and stop doing the activity that is causing the problem.
Holding a cold compress, such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel, against your elbow for a few minutes several times a day can help ease the pain.
Taking painkillers, such as paracetamol, may help reduce mild pain caused by tennis elbow. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can also be used to help reduce inflammation.
Physiotherapy may be recommended in more severe and persistent cases. Massaging and manipulating the affected area may help relieve the pain and stiffness and improve the range of movement in your arm.
Surgery may be used as a last resort to remove the damaged tendon.
Most cases of tennis elbow last between six months and two years. However, in about nine out of 10 cases, a full recovery is made within a year.
Preventing tennis elbow
It is not always easy to avoid getting tennis elbow, although not putting too much stress on the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbow will help prevent the condition getting worse.
If your tennis elbow is caused by an activity that involves placing repeated strain on your elbow joint, such as tennis, changing your technique may alleviate the problem.