Do you suffer from pain in your elbow joint? Is the area chronically swollen or inflamed? Do you feel pain when you straighten your arm? These are typical symptoms of tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis.
What is Tennis Elbow?
The Mayo Clinic's definition of tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is "a painful condition that occurs when tendons in the elbow become overloaded, usually by repetitive motions of the wrist and arm."
What causes Tennis Elbow?
Like so many modern day joint conditions, tennis elbow generally manifests after years of repetitive activity that puts pressure on the elbow joint. When it comes to tennis elbow, we pay particular attention to the tendons in the forearm. These tendons attach the muscles of your forearm to the elbow's outer bone.
A muscle in your forearm called the ECRB, or extensor carpi radialis brevis, helps you raise your wrist. When this muscle is injured or damaged over time, the painful condition known as tennis elbow manifests. Tiny tears in this muscle's tendon at the location where it attaches to the outside of the elbow create inflammation, which causes pain-and tennis elbow.
What forms of activity are associated with tennis elbow?
- Playing tennis
- Typing on a computer
- Turning a screwdriver
What professions are prone to tennis elbow?
- Pro golfers
- Pro tennis players
Tennis elbow signs and symptoms?
- Pain that starts at the outside of the elbow and moves down the forearm and to the wrist.
- It becomes harder and harder to grip things.
- You feel pain when you squeeze your hand.
- You experience pain and/or difficulty when trying to open a jar.
- You experience pain and/or difficulty picking up and carrying things.
How to prevent tennis elbow
Like anything, prevention is preferable to suffering through any kind of painful condition. Here are a handful of useful tips and tricks for preventing tennis elbow:
- As soon as you're done with your sport (ie. swimming, tennis playing, golfing, etc.) ice your elbow to prevent inflammation.
- If you're using tools for work or a particular activity, make certain you’re using them in an ergonomically correct fashion.
- If you're practicing a sport or doing any repetitive activity, for that matter, make sure your technique is precise.
- Do exercises that stretch and strengthen your forearm muscles.
- Whenever you feel elbow pain, or what you suspect could be inflammation in the area, simply stop what you’re doing and rest your elbow.
Diagnosing tennis elbow
Like many other joint conditions, a physical exam is likely needed to diagnose tennis elbow. It will consist of simple lifestyle questions and tests. Scans and an MRI may be necessary to dismiss more serious issues. All in all, the diagnosis for tennis elbow is a relatively pain-free process, except maybe the brief moment when Dr. Eubanks might apply pressure to the area to check for pain. Arthritis of the elbow has similar symptoms, which is why an imaging test may be necessary.
Noninvasive treatments for tennis elbow
Many natural forms of treatment can be effective for this condition. In fact, 80-95% of cases are treated successfully with a combination of the following techniques:
- Cold therapy - Applying ice packs to the elbow can reduce inflammation, ease swelling, and minimize pain.
- Even taking NSAIDS can decrease pain and inflammation.
- Resting the elbow for several weeks can heal tennis elbow. A brace may be necessary to maintain immobility in the affected muscles.
- Physical therapy - Seeing a physical therapist to rehabilitate the joint and muscles works wonders when it comes to healing tennis elbow. You’ll receive loads of exercises and healing techniques to do during your session as well as at home, which gives you the proper tools to prevent similar issues from happening in the future.
More invasive ways to treat tennis elbow
Some tennis elbow cases will beg other forms of treatment, for example:
- Steroid injections - When injected into your elbow, corticosteroid injections help alleviate inflammation, which in turn alleviates pain.
- Ultrasound therapy - When placed over your elbow, an ultrasound releases high frequency sound waves into the tissues of the affected area, which promotes healing by lowering levels of inflammation.
- Plasma injections - Some doctors have begun utilizing platelet-rich plasma injections. This treatment is relatively new for treating tennis elbow, but showing promise.
The need for surgery is rare, but in some instances necessary. If it's been a year since your chosen treatment and the tennis elbow has failed to heal and recover fully, you're a candidate for surgery. Should you need tennis elbow surgery, Dr. Eubanks will determine which method is right for you. One involves a scope that's inserted arthroscopically into the elbow, while the other uses the method of open surgery with a large incision over your elbow. Both techniques get rid of dead tissue and attach the healed muscle to bone. Post-surgery recovery typically involves immobilizing the area by wearing a splint to bring about muscle flexibility and strength.
If you've been experiencing pain and inflammation in the elbow area for a while, and suspect tennis elbow may be the issue, we encourage you to make an appointment with Dr. Eubanks. He’ll schedule a physical examination to determine the proper treatment and next steps for recovery.
Our Surgeon Specializing in Tennis Elbow
- Ryan Eubanks, DO
- Hand, Plastic & Reconstructive Surgeon
- Learn More