Tennis elbow, medically known as lateral epicondylitis, is a painful condition that occurs when tendons in your elbow are overworked, usually caused by repetitive stress of the wrist and arm.
Despite its name, tennis players aren’t the only ones who experience tennis elbow. Plumbers, painters, carpenters, butchers and people whose jobs require extensive use of their arms are prone to developing tennis elbows.
The pain of tennis elbow occurs primarily where the tendons of your forearm muscles attach to a bony bump on the outside of your elbow. Pain can also spread into your forearm and wrist.
Tennis elbow is a type of tendinitis (or inflammation of the tendons) that causes pain in the elbow and arm. Tendons are fibrous bands of tissue that connect the muscles to the bone. Tennis elbows can be caused by any repetitive gripping activities, especially if they use the thumb and first two fingers. People who are about 40 years old are the most common patients of tennis elbow, although it can happen to people of any age.
The causes of tennis elbow
Tennis elbow can develop over time when regularly doing tasks with repetitive arm motions, like gripping a racket during a swing. These activities can strain the muscles and put too much stress on the tendons and eventually cause microscopic tears in the tissue.
Tennis elbow might result from playing tennis, racquetball, squash, fencing or from lifting weights. It can also affect people whose jobs or hobbies require repetitive arm motions or gripping such as carpentry, typing, painting, raking or knitting.
Symptoms of tennis elbow
The main symptoms of tennis elbow are pain and tenderness in the bony part on the outside of your elbow. This is where the injured tendons connect to the bone. The pain may also radiate into the upper or lower arm. Even though the pain is mainly found in the elbow, your hands may also hurt.
Tennis elbow may cause the most pain when you lift or grip objects, make a fist, open doors, straighten your wrist, shake hands or even when you simply raise your hand.
To diagnose tennis elbow, you will usually need to undergo a physical exam. Your doctor will ask you questions such as the nature of your job, any sports you play and when and how your symptoms developed. They will then perform some simple tests to help make a diagnosis. They will check for pain by applying a bit of pressure to the spot where the tendon attaches to the bone. Your doctor will also try to straighten and flex your wrist (bent toward the palm side) to check if there is pain along the outer side of the elbow as you extend.
Your doctor may also recommend for you to undergo imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI scan, to rule out other disorders that can cause arm pain as in arthritis. These tests are not usually necessary to make a diagnosis.
Treatment for tennis elbow
Tennis elbow often gets better on its own, but if over-the-counter pain medications and other self-care measures aren’t helping, your doctor may suggest physical therapy. Severe cases of tennis elbow may require surgery.
Your doctor will first prescribe one or more of the following treatments:
The first step in your recovery is to rest your arm for several weeks. Your doctor may give you a brace to help immobilize the affected muscles.
Ice packs placed over the elbow can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines
Over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can help reduce pain and swelling.
A physical therapist will use various exercises to strengthen the muscles of your forearm to promote healing. These may include arm exercises, ice massages and muscle-stimulation techniques.
In ultrasound therapy, an ultrasound probe is placed over the most painful area on your arm. The probe emits high-frequency sound waves into the tissues for a set period of time. This type of treatment can help reduce inflammation and speed up recovery.
Your doctor may decide to inject a corticosteroid medication directly into the affected muscle or where the tendon attaches to the bone at the elbow. This can help reduce inflammation.
Shock wave therapy
This is an experimental treatment that delivers sound waves to the elbow to promote the body’s own healing process. Your doctor may or may not offer this therapy.
Platelet-rich plasma injection
This is a treatment possibility that seems quite promising and is being used by some physicians. However, it is usually not covered by insurance companies presently.
How to prevent lateral epicondylitis?
There are a number of ways to help prevent tennis elbow, including:
- Making sure sure to use the right equipment and proper technique for each sport or task.
- Doing exercises that strengthen the forearm and maintain its flexibility.
- Regularly icing your elbow after an intense physical activity.
- Resting your elbow if it’s painful to bend or straighten your arm.
If you take these steps and avoid putting strain on the tendons of your elbow, you can lower your chances of getting tennis elbow or prevent it from coming back.
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