What Is Tennis Elbow? A FAQ

Christopher C. Dodson, MD March 10th, 2016

Maybe you’re a tennis player, and your elbow has been burning painfully with each swing. Maybe you’re not. Maybe your doctor diagnosed you with tennis elbow, and you balked at the idea, because you’ve never picked up a racket in your life. Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is a common injury among athletes, but you might be surprised to learn that the condition is also frequently seen in those who have never so much as served a ball.

This may lead you to the question, what is tennis elbow, and why do so many people get it? At Rothman Orthopaedic Institute, we are committed to providing you with clear, accurate information about your condition and treatment options, in order to put you on the road to recovery.

What Is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is the inflammation of tendons, as well as injury to tendons and muscles around the elbow joint as a result of overuse. While this injury is incredibly common in tennis players, anyone who engages in repetitive motion with their forearms, especially motion that repeatedly applies force, can develop tennis elbow. For this reason, tennis elbow is very common in a number of professionals and hobbyists, including athletes, carpenters, butchers, and plumbers. Symptoms can include:

  • Pain or burning on the outer, bony part of the elbow
  • Elbow stiffness and aching, especially after periods of rest
  • Pain in the forearm
  • Pain when gripping an object
  • Weakness and reduced grip strength

What Causes Tennis Elbow?

While exactly what causes tennis elbow is unclear, there are a number of risk factors, including:

  • Repetitive motion - Overuse of the elbow is a major contributing factor in the development of tennis elbow
  • Age - Most people who develop tennis elbow are between the ages of 30 and 50.
  • Activities - Anyone who vigorously uses her or his forearm muscle on a regular basis is at greater risk for developing tennis elbow.
  • Technique and equipment - Those who use improper tennis technique, or whose equipment is not appropriately sized for his or her body are at greater risk for tennis elbow

This said, sometimes an individual with no obvious risk factors develops tennis elbow. When the causes is unknown, doctors may refer to the condition as “insidious” tennis elbow.

How Is Tennis Elbow Diagnosed?

Now that we’ve answered the question “what is tennis elbow,” you may be wondering if your elbow pain is caused by this condition. If you or a loved one has been experiencing symptoms of tennis elbow, you should see a doctor for diagnosis, and to discuss treatment options.

When you visit your doctor about tennis elbow symptoms, she will ask you about your regular activities, and whether you engage in repetitive motion with the affected arm. Your physician will also likely ask you about pre-existing conditions that may be causing your elbow pain, such as previous injury or arthritis.

Your doctor will also examine your elbow and arm, and likely have you perform a few different tasks, such as flexing your hand one direction or another. Testing your ability to move different part of your arm, as well as you ability to move against force, will help her to diagnose your condition.

If after the examination your doctor still has questions about the cause of your elbow pain, she may order imaging tests, such as an x-ray or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), in order to rule out other conditions.

What Are My Treatment Options?

Tennis elbow is typically an easy to treat condition, and more than 90% of patients recover with non-surgical treatment. Treatment options include:

  • Activity Modification - You may need to change some of your activities. In many cases, for athletes, this means working with an athletic instructor or professional to change your body mechanics.
  • Rest - One of the best treatments for tennis elbow is rest. Overuse causes tennis elbow, so resting is both an effective and often simple treatment option.
  • Over the Counter Pain Medication - Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, or NSAIDS, often available over the counter, are usually effective in treating the pain and inflammation associated with tennis elbow. It is important to talk to your doctor before starting any medication regimen.
  • Changing Sports Equipment - Physicians who focus on sports medicine have found that those using inappropriately sized equipment are often at higher risk for tennis elbow. Racquets that are more loosely strung are also better for prevention tennis elbow.
  • Physical Therapy and Exercise - Physical therapy is often helpful for orthopaedic injuries, including tennis elbow, because they focus on strengthening muscles that work with and support joints and bones.
  • Steroid Injections - Your doctor may recommend cortisone injections directly into the affected muscle to reduce acute swelling and pain.

On rare occasions, if these options have been attempted over a long period of time and been ineffective, your doctor may recommend surgical treatment options.

Where can I find more information?

Now that you’ve read our “what is tennis elbow” FAQ, if you are looking for more details, doctors at Rothman Orthopaedic Institute are available to help. For more information, please visit us here or contact us at 1-800-321-9999.



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