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Tennis Elbow (And How to Treat It)

Repetitive motions, like gripping a racquet during a swing, can strain the muscles and put too much stress on the tendons. Learn about causes and treatment.

Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is the most common injury of patients seeking medical attention for elbow pain. It is a painful condition involving inflammation of the tendons that attach the forearm muscles to the outside of the elbow. The forearm muscles and tendons become damaged from overuse — repeating the same motions over and over again. Tennis elbow can occur at any age but is most common in people between the ages of 30 and 50.

In this article, we’ll discuss the following:

  • Causes of tennis elbow
  • Symptoms
  • Diagnosis
  • Potential Treatments
  • How Michigan Surgery Specialists can help

Causes of tennis elbow

Repetitive motions, like gripping a racquet during a swing, can strain the muscles and put too much stress on the tendons. This can eventually cause microscopic tears in the tissue.

Despite its name, tennis elbow doesn’t just occur in athletes who engage in racquet sports. It can affect anyone who uses repetitive motions of the wrist and arm, or gripping, such as people who engage in:

  • Construction work
  • Plumbing
  • Gardening
  • Knitting
  • Assembly line work
  • Painting
  • Cooking
  • Weight lifting

. . . and others.

Symptoms of tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is not a sudden injury, it’s something that develops over time. In most cases, it starts as a mild pain and worsens over weeks and months. Unlike other injuries, there is usually no specific instance associated with the start of symptoms.

The most common symptom of tennis elbow is a recurring pain on the outside of the upper forearm, just below the bend of the elbow. Sometimes this is felt further down the arm toward the wrist.

Tennis elbow pain may also happen when you:

  • Lift something
  • Bend your arm
  • Raise your hand or straighten your wrist
  • Perform basic actions, such as writing
  • Make a fist or grip an object, such as a tennis racquet or even a coffee cup
  • Twist your forearm, like when turning a door handle

Diagnosis

In many cases, a physical exam is enough for your doctor to determine whether or not you have tennis elbow. During the exam, the doctor may apply pressure to the affected area and ask you to move your elbow, wrist, and fingers in different ways.

But if your doctor suspects there may be other causes of your problem, they may order additional tests.

  • X-rays.These provide clear images of dense structures like bone, and may be ordered to rule out arthritis in your elbow.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. An MRI may be in order if your doctor thinks your symptoms could be related to a neck problem. MRIs show details of soft tissue, and would be able to show whether you have a possible herniated disk or even arthritis in your neck. Both of these conditions also produce arm pain.
  • Electromyography (EMG). An EMG would be able to tell your doctor if you’ve got nerve compression. Many nerves travel around the elbow, and compressed nerves in that area have similar symptoms to tennis elbow.

Treatment for tennis elbow

For many patients, tennis elbow goes away on its own. For others, both surgical and non-surgical treatments are available. Between 80% and 95% of all patients have success with nonsurgical treatment, which is always the first approach.

Nonsurgical tennis elbow treatment

Nonsurgical treatment methods like resting the arm, taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (such as ibuprofen or naproxen) to reduce pain and swelling, and wearing a brace are good first steps to recovering from tennis elbow.

Physical therapy is often recommended, as there are specific exercises that are helpful for strengthening the muscles of the forearm. A physical therapist may also perform an ultrasound, ice massage, or muscle-stimulating techniques to help muscle healing.

Steroid injections. Steroids like cortisone are very effective anti-inflammatory medicines. If your symptoms are very painful and making movement difficult, your doctor may recommend a steroid injection. 

Surgical tennis elbow treatment

In most cases, the nonsurgical treatment methods for tennis elbow listed above are enough. But if symptoms are still occurring after 6 to12 months, your orthopedist may recommend surgery.

Open surgery for tennis elbow

Open surgery is the most common surgery for tennis elbow repair. It involves making an incision over the elbow. It is usually performed as outpatient, and rarely requires an overnight hospital stay.

Arthroscopic tennis elbow surgery

Another method of tennis elbow surgery is arthroscopic surgery. It uses miniature instruments and very small incisions. Like open surgery, this is a same-day or outpatient procedure.

How can Michigan Surgery Specialists help?  

If you suspect you have tennis elbow, make an appointment with Michigan Surgery Specialists to learn more and discuss your treatment options. As we mentioned, most cases of tennis elbow do not require surgery, but Michigan Surgery Specialists will discuss the right approach for your situation. Our team of experts has helped many people suffering from tennis elbow, and we can help you get back to the activities that you love. Contact us today.

 

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