How to Handle Tennis Elbow

A common term for a painful condition that can develop in your elbow by overusing arms, forearms, and hand muscles is tennis elbow. Affecting nearly half of tennis players during their career, this condition is most often seen between the ages of 30 and 50, and is more prevalent in males. About 3% of the US population overall have been diagnosed with tennis elbow, regardless of whether they play or not.

You don’t have to play tennis to develop tennis elbow. Less than 5% of the overall diagnoses are the result of a patient actually playing tennis. The name simply stuck because this condition is most problematic for tennis players. Less often used are the terms lateral epicondylitis (by doctors) or ‘golfer’s elbow’, as the way a golfer swings the club is similar to swinging a tennis racket in terms of how the motion affects the body. Some other professions which can result in tennis elbow: baseball players, bowlers, gardeners or landscapers, house or office cleaners (because of vacuuming, sweeping, and scrubbing), carpenters, mechanics, and assembly-line workers.

Symptoms of tennis elbow include:

  • slowly increasing pain around the outside of the elbow
  • when shaking hands or squeezing objects, the pain is worse
  • stabilizing or moving the wrist with force also makes the pain worse (examples: lifting, using tools, opening jars, or even handling simple utensils such as a toothbrush or knife and fork)

For those that develop tennis elbow, it usually happens in the dominant arm, although it can occur in either. So how does a medical professional determine if a patient has tennis elbow? Blood tests and x-rays will not do any good. The doc will have to make the call based on a physical exam and a conversation with the patient one on one.

Keep in mind that other problems can develop in this area, so don’t assume you have a minor injury—see your doctor for proper diagnoses.

Course of treatment will depend on the patient’s age, types of drugs (if any) being taken, overall health, medical history, and severity of pain. Ultimately, the goals for the patient are to reduce pain and inflammation, promote healing, and decrease the stress on the injured elbow.

Ways to treat tennis elbow:

  • physical therapy
  • forearm bracing to rest the tendons
  • topical anti-inflammatory gels
  • topical cortisone gels and/or cortisone injections
  • rarely requires surgery (less than 5% of patients)

Ways to reduce pain and inflammation of tennis elbow:

  • rest and avoid any activity that causes pain
  • apply ice to the affected area
  • take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen
  • topical or injected cortisone

Once the pain has been eliminated, or at least reduced, the next step is to begin physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the muscles and tendons. Any activity which might aggravate the injured area should be avoided.

Ways to decrease stress and abuse on tennis elbow:

  • use proper equipment and technique in sports and on the job.
  • using a counterforce brace (an elastic band wrapped around the forearm below the injured elbow/tendon) may help to relieve pain for some people
  • avoid tight gripping and overuse of the wrist
  • pay attention to the movements that cause pain, and avoid them

For 90% to 95% of people diagnosed with tennis elbow, they will improve and recover if they work with their doctor and follow the prescribed treatment plan.