What Is Tennis Elbow?
Connecting the upper arm and forearm, the elbow is a major joint in our bodies and we use it all the time, whether for simple things like cleaning our teeth or more strenuous activities such as playing sports and lifting weights. With such frequent use, it’s no surprise that the elbow joint can become injured over time and this often manifests as something called tennis elbow.
Despite its name, being an avid tennis player is not a prerequisite to ending up with a case of tennis elbow – although those who do enjoy spending their time on the court could certainly find themselves nursing this ailment. Known clinically as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is a common condition that’s usually the result of overusing the muscles and tendons found in your forearm, near the elbow joint.
What Causes Tennis Elbow?
A classic overuse injury, tennis elbow is caused by repetitive stress on the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbow. It’s normally a consequence of certain activities or tasks, including:
- Racquet sports – Whether you favour tennis, squash or badminton, repeatedly bending and flexing your elbow or twisting your wrist during these types of sports can cause you to develop tennis elbow.
- Manual work – Things like painting and decorating, bricklaying, and carpentry, all of which involve repetitive bending of the elbow joint, can put a strain on your forearm and cause tears in the surrounding muscles or tendons. It doesn’t have to be particularly strenuous work either; assembly line workers are at risk too.
- Gardening – Whether you’re a professional gardener or it’s just a hobby, digging and the use of pruning tools such as shears can lead to the development of tennis elbow. If you’re a tree surgeon, tennis elbow can also result from the consistent use of heavier tools like chainsaws.
- Playing an instrument – Playing certain instruments, such as a violin or cello, requires the kind of repetitive motion which causes tennis elbow.
- Weight lifting – Regular gym-goers who do exercises such as bicep curls can be susceptible to tennis elbow, particularly if their technique isn’t quite right.
If you’re new to an activity then your forearm muscles won’t be used to it either, and this can lead directly to the development of tennis elbow.
It’s also worth noting that in a few cases, tennis elbow can result from a sudden strain or a knock to the elbow area.
Symptoms of Tennis Elbow
The main symptom of tennis elbow is an aching pain experienced on the outside of the elbow. This pain can vary in its severity and tends to be felt when you move or fully extend your arm – but a bad case of tennis elbow can lead to constant pain around the joint, even when it’s not in use.
The following movements can cause pain and tenderness if you’ve got tennis elbow:
- Twisting – A twisting motion, even from doing something simple like opening a bottle or jar, will aggravate the condition.
- Bending or lifting – This puts direct strain on the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbow.
- Gripping objects – Whether you’re holding a pencil to write or attempting to use a paint brush, these sorts of movements could lead to pain around your elbow. If your case is severe, you may find that it’s extremely difficult or impossible to grip some objects.
Here are a couple of additional signs to look out for:
- Painful to touch – Touching the outside of your elbow may cause pain or discomfort.
- Pain in other areas – Because of the nature of tennis elbow, you could also have pain in the connecting tissues of your forearm – especially on the outside near the elbow – or even the back of your wrist or hand as the pain moves down the arm.
Treatment for Tennis Elbow
In most instances, tennis elbow will eventually resolve on its own without any expert treatment. Because most cases are a direct result of repetitive movement or strain, the NHS recommends rest as the number one way to treat tennis elbow and avoid worsening the condition. If it’s your job that caused you to develop tennis elbow in the first place, speak to your employer and explain that you’ll need to modify or steer clear of certain activities.
While resting and stopping the activity that led to your case of tennis elbow are the most important factors to ensure recovery of your muscles and tendons, our dedicated tennis elbow recovery bundle will help you speed up the process with cooling bandages that effectively soothe pain, reduce inflammation and promote healing.
You might also want to take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
Tennis elbow can take weeks or even up to a year to fully heal, particularly if it’s your tendons that are damaged. You could also find that it becomes a reoccurring, or chronic, condition – particularly if your case is the result of your job or a hobby you do regularly. In these ongoing or severe cases, surgery is a last resort and your GP or physiotherapist will first recommend some strengthening exercises. Steroid injections can also be used to treat tennis elbow.
Some injuries can be self-treated whilst others require prompt medical attention. You should seek advice from a health professional if: the injury causes severe pain, swelling, or numbness; you can't tolerate weight on the area; the pain or dull ache of an old injury is accompanied by increased swelling or joint abnormality or instability.