In many cases, it creeps up gradually: a worsening pain in your elbow. It’s uncomfortable, it hurts, and it can make everyday activities where you need grip strength nearly impossible. So what’s going on?
You may have a condition called tennis elbow, which is officially known as lateral epicondylitis. Here’s what you need to know about the painful condition, and what you can do to feel better, faster.
WHAT IS TENNIS ELBOW?
Tennis elbow is tendonitis, or an inflammation, in the tendon connecting the elbow joint and the forearm muscles that extend the wrist and fingers, says orthopedic surgeon Leon Popozitz, M.D. If you use this muscle and joint a lot, whether through tennis, typing, or some other work or sport activity (like lifting), your tendon can get irritated and inflamed. In fact, it’s most often caused by overuse.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, performing a particular motion frequently can weaken a stabilizing muscle of your wrist, causing microscopic tears in the tendon that connects to the bony bump on the outside of your elbow. This is what causes the pain and inflammation.
WHO GETS TENNIS ELBOW?
You might assume you’re immune to tennis elbow if you’re not a tennis player, or even an athlete, but it’s possible to get it if you’ve never picked up a tennis racket, says Dr. Popozitz. In fact, tennis is a direct cause for just five percent of tennis elbow cases, according to BMJ Clinical Evidence.
Tennis elbow is particularly common among middle-aged people and among plumbers, carpenters, chefs, and others whose professions involve lots of arm and wrist movement. Those who perform manual work are four times as likely to experience the condition, a study in Rheumatology found.
WHAT ARE SYMPTOMS OF TENNIS ELBOW?
If you have tennis elbow, the pain usually worsens gradually. The outside of your elbow will feel sore, tender, weak, and maybe even hot and swollen, says Dr. Popozitz. The pain might also spread to your forearm when you stretch.
You might also notice a reduction in your grip strength, as well as an increase in pain when you use your grip, like if your grabbing a racquet, a tool, or a heavy weight at the gym, or even just shaking someone’s hand. Because tennis elbow pain tends to flare up during repetitive arm, wrist, and elbow work, you may notice it hurts if you do lots of sets of bicep curls.
HOW TO TREAT TENNIS ELBOW
In the short term, you can alleviate the pain by reducing the activity that’s causing it, stretching your arm, and taking an anti-inflammatory medication like Advil or Aleve, says Dr. Popozitz. To reduce the swelling, you can ice it.
The problem is, tennis elbow tends to pop back up if you don’t strengthen the muscles, he adds. So, as soon as you notice you have tennis elbow, you should talk to a doctor about starting physical therapy to prevent further injury. Exercises are usually low-weight, high-rep—say, three sets of 15 to 20 reps—performed with cuff weights, and include moves like side-lying external rotation, prone external rotation with scapular retraction, and scapular plane elevation with thumb-up position, according to the journal Sports Health.
If that doesn’t work, tennis elbow can be treated with injections of an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid. This will get rid of the inflammation for about a month, during which you can undergo physical therapy to strengthen your arm and elbow. If you try this for six months to a year and still don’t see relief, you might consider surgery to remove the damaged tissue and repair the muscle.
By Suzannah Weiss