What Is Tennis Elbow?

Doctors know the condition as lateral epicondylitis. The rest of us call it “tennis elbow.”

The term has entered wide use, though only a small group of people diagnosed with tennis elbow actually get it from playing tennis.

Tennis elbow is a common injury that will usually heal with minor treatment, but you have to give it time and rest.

Where Is the Pain?

Tennis elbow is a pain focused on the outside of the arm, where your forearm meets your elbow.

It’s related to a muscle and tendons in your forearm. Tendons connect your muscles to your bones. When you constantly use your arm in a repetitive motion, the tendons at the elbow end of a certain muscle -- the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) muscle --- may develop small tears.

The tears lead to inflammation and may put stress on the rest of your arm, making it painful to lift and grip things. Left untreated, it can become chronic (that’s medical-speak for “ongoing”).

Tennis elbow affects up to 3% of the population, particularly adults between 30 and 50 years of age. But less than 5% of cases are linked to tennis.

What Causes Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is a classic repetitive stress injury caused by overuse. Any activity that strains the muscles around the elbow over and over again can cause it. There’s also a version golfers get called “golfer’s elbow.”

In tennis, hitting a backhand puts some stress on your forearm muscles, which repeatedly contract when you hit the ball. If you have poor technique or grip the racquet too tightly, that stress may increase in the tendons that connect the forearm muscles to the elbow. The tendons may get small tears.

The more you do it -- and tennis is a game of repeated strokes -- the greater the chance for tennis elbow.

You can get it from other racquet sports, such as squash or racquetball. You can also get it from jobs or activities that involve repetitive arm motion, such as:

  • Tree-cutting (repetitive use of a chain saw)
  • Painting
  • Carpentry
  • Playing some types of musical instruments

Butchers, cooks, and assembly-line workers are among the groups that get it often.

Golfer’s elbow differs from tennis elbow in that the pain is focused on the inside of the elbow. But the causes are similar: tendon tears caused by repetitive movement, whether it’s a golf swing, lifting weights, or simply shaking hands.

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Symptoms

The most common symptom of tennis elbow is an ache on the outside of the elbow. Over time -- from a few weeks to a few months -- the ache turns into a chronic pain. The outside of your elbow may become too painful to touch.

Eventually, you may find it harder or more painful to grip or lift things. Sometimes tennis elbow affects both arms.

Treatment

Your doctor may ask you to do some simple actions to see whether you have tennis elbow. These include straightening your wrist against pressure and checking for pain in parts of your arm. He may also order an MRI scan for you.

Tennis elbow can usually be treated with exercise, physical therapy, and medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and aspirin. Talk to your doctor if you have ongoing pain and think you may need to take pain relievers for an extended time.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on December 28, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Tennis Elbow.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Tennis Elbow (lateral epicondylitis).”

American Society for Surgery of the Hand: “Tennis Elbow -- Lateral Epicondylitis.”

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis).”

SportsInjuryClinic.net: “Tennis Elbow.”

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