Illness & Conditions - Health Conditions
Covers symptoms of tennis elbow, including pain around the elbow. Covers activities that increase risk, like gardening, swimming, or golf. Looks at treatment options, including surgery. Offers prevention tips, including photos of exercises that may help.
What is tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow is soreness or pain on the outer part of the elbow. It happens when you damage the tendons that connect the muscles of your forearm to your elbow. The pain may spread down your arm to your wrist. If you don't treat the injury, it may hurt to do simple things like turn a key or open a door.
Your doctor may call this condition lateral epicondylitis.
What causes tennis elbow?
Most of the time tennis elbow is caused by overuse. You probably got it from doing activities where you twist your arm over and over. This can stress the tendon, causing tiny tears that in time lead to pain. A direct blow to the outer elbow can also cause tendon damage.
Tennis elbow is common in tennis players, but most people get it from other activities that work the same muscles, such as gardening, painting, or using a screwdriver. It is often the result of using equipment that is the wrong size or using it the wrong way.
Anyone can get tennis elbow, but it usually occurs in people in their 40s.
How is tennis elbow diagnosed?
To diagnose tennis elbow, a doctor will examine your elbow and ask questions about the elbow problem, your daily activities, and past injuries. You probably won't need to have an X-ray, but you might have one to help rule out other things that could be causing the pain.
If your symptoms don't get better with treatment, you might have an imaging test, such as an MRI. This can tell your doctor whether a bone problem or tissue damage is causing your symptoms.
How is it treated?
You can start treating tennis elbow at home right away.
After the pain eases, your doctor or physical therapist can teach you rehabilitation (rehab) exercises to stretch and strengthen your tendon. Doing these exercises at home can help your tendon heal and can prevent further injury.
When you feel better, you can return to your activity, but take it easy for a while. Don't start at the same level as before your injury. Build back to your previous level slowly, and stop if it hurts. To avoid damaging your tendon again:
Be patient, and stay with your treatment. You will probably feel better in a few weeks, but it may take 6 to 12 months for the tendon to heal. In some cases, the pain lasts for 2 years or longer.
If your symptoms don't improve after 6 to 8 weeks of home treatment, your doctor may suggest a shot of corticosteroid . This could give you some short-term relief so you can start rehab exercises. Surgery is seldom needed for tennis elbow.
Frequently Asked Questions
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Overuse of the forearm muscles using a repeated twisting motion is the most common cause of tennis elbow. These movements are common to various jobs, such as carpentry or plumbing, and to many daily activities, such as yard work and lifting objects. Racquet sports, swimming, and throwing sports (such as baseball) can also lead to tennis elbow .
Tennis elbow injuries can result from:
Tennis elbow symptoms usually begin gradually. The main symptom is pain, which may begin with a dull aching or soreness on the outer part of the elbow that goes away within 24 hours after an activity. As time goes on, it may take longer for the pain to go away. The condition may further progress to pain with any movement, even during everyday activities, such as lifting a jug of milk. Pain may spread to the hand, wrist, other parts of the arm, shoulder, or neck.
Tennis elbow pain:
Other parts of the arm, shoulder, and neck may also become sore or painful as the body tries to make up for the loss of elbow movement and strength.
Swelling rarely occurs with tennis elbow. If your elbow is swollen, you may have another type of condition, such as arthritis.
Radial tunnel syndrome is an unusual type of nerve entrapment that is sometimes confused with or can develop at the same time as tennis elbow.
Tennis elbow pain is a symptom of tendon injury.
Overuse or stress can cause microtears in the tendon. This usually occurs because of repetitive motions of the arm or wrist. The longer you use an injured tendon, the more damaged it becomes.
The most common symptom of tennis elbow is pain on the outside of the elbow. Given enough rest, the tendon can mend on its own. But if you continue the activity, the weakened tendon may become more vulnerable to tear or rupture from a sudden accidental blow, fall, or forceful movement.
With early rest and treatment, an injured tendon is likely to heal with minimal scar tissue and maximum strength. While a recent, mild tendon injury might need a few weeks of rest to heal, a severely damaged tendon can take months to mend. Corticosteroid injections may give you short-term pain relief to allow you to start a rehabilitation (rehab) program. But they may weaken tendon tissue if given too often.
What Increases Your Risk
Risk factors for tennis elbow include:
If you think that your workplace activity is causing elbow pain or soreness, talk to your human resources department for information on other ways of doing your job, equipment changes, or other job assignments. For more information, see the topic Office Ergonomics.
When To Call a Doctor
Call your doctor immediately if you had an injury to your elbow and:
Call your doctor if you have:
Watchful waiting is when you and your doctor watch your symptoms to see if your health improves on its own. If it does, no treatment is needed. If your symptoms don't get better or they get worse, then it's time to take the next treatment step.
Home treatment often helps mild tennis elbow pain. You may want to try resting the elbow and applying ice or heat several times a day for 1 to 2 weeks before you call your doctor.
Who to see
For evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment of tennis elbow, you may see:
You may be referred to a:
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Exams and Tests
Your doctor can usually determine if you have tennis elbow by talking to you about the history of your symptoms, daily activities, and past injuries. You'll have a physical exam too.
X-rays aren't usually needed for diagnosis of tennis elbow but can sometimes rule out other causes of elbow pain, such as arthritis, signs of another type of injury, or a buildup of calcium crystals in a tendon or ligament. X-rays can show unusual bone structure that might cause soft-tissue damage (such as to tendons or muscles), but they don't show soft tissues very clearly. If your elbow pain isn't severe and can't be linked to a specific injury, your doctor may recommend starting treatment without doing X-rays to see whether the problem clears up in a few weeks.
If nonsurgical treatment (such as rest, the use of ice and anti-inflammatory drugs, rehabilitation exercises, and changing or stopping certain activities) hasn't helped relieve elbow pain, or if the diagnosis is unclear, other tests may be helpful.
If your doctor thinks you have nerve damage, electromyogram and nerve conduction tests can check how well your nerves are working.
Tennis elbow treatment is most often successful. The most important part of treatment is tendon rest. A long rest from aggravating activity allows the small tears in the tendon to heal. Depending on how severe your condition is, you may need to rest your tendon for weeks to months. Surgery is a last resort if other treatment isn't helpful.
Initial home treatment
Treatment for tennis elbow works best when it starts as soon as symptoms appear. If your condition is just starting, rest may be all you need. But in most cases, more treatment is needed to protect and heal the tendon.
You can treat your tennis elbow by:
Wrist and elbow splints can be used in the treatment of tennis elbow. Splints are sometimes helpful for other bone, joint, and tendon problems. But splints have not been shown to help with pain or recovery for tennis elbow injuries.
Over the first months of recovery from tennis elbow, continue your initial treatment and begin:
Treatment if the condition gets worse or does not improve
The longer you continue activity that harms the tendon after tennis elbow symptoms begin, the longer rehab will take. This ongoing activity can cause severe tendon damage and may someday require surgery. If your symptoms don't go away, your doctor may suggest:
What to think about
Your treatment choices will depend in part on whether elbow pain affects your job or daily life. It also depends on whether you are willing or able to change habits or activities that are causing your elbow pain.
Nonsurgical treatment is usually started if the injury is:
Most cases of tennis elbow respond to rest, ice, rehab exercises, pain medicine, and counterforce braces. This injury does take from 6 months to 12 months to heal. Patience helps.
Surgery is considered as a last resort when all other nonsurgical treatments have failed. You may be referred for surgery if:
In as many as 9 out of 10 people who have tennis elbow, symptoms go away and the people can return to their normal activities whether they have had surgery or not. 3
The best way to prevent tennis elbow is to stretch and strengthen your arm muscles so that they are flexible and strong enough for your activities.
Other ways to prevent tennis elbow include:
If you feel that certain activities at your job are causing elbow pain or soreness, talk to your human resources department for information on other ways of doing your job. They can help with changes to equipment or other job assignments.
Consider taking lessons to learn the proper technique for sports, such as tennis and golf, that require grasping and twisting motions in the arm. Have a sports trainer or a person who is familiar with sports equipment check yours to make sure it suits your level of ability, body size, and body strength.
In daily routines or hobbies, look for activities that use repeated arm movements that strain your fingers, wrist, or forearm, such as in gardening, cooking, or playing musical instruments. Train yourself to use techniques that won't stress your elbow. For example, when you lift objects, lift with the palm of your hand facing upwards.
If you have tennis elbow, follow these simple steps to reduce pain and start tendon healing. A rehab program such as this will prevent further injury by making your arm muscles stronger.
Along with tendon rest, people often use medicine to treat tennis elbow. Medicine can help with pain and relieve or reduce swelling.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin (such as Bayer), ibuprofen (such as Advil), or naproxen (such as Aleve), are the most commonly used medicines for treating tennis elbow. NSAIDs are available with or without a prescription. NSAIDs come in pills and in a cream that you rub over the sore area. Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) can also help with pain. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
Your doctor may suggest corticosteroid injections (shots) if you are still in pain after at least 6 to 8 weeks of tendon rest and rehab. Corticosteroids are a class of powerful anti-inflammatory medicine. Even though inflammation isn't usually present in long-term (chronic) tennis elbow, corticosteroid shots may ease elbow pain.
What to think about
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroid shots don't cure tennis elbow. But they can reduce pain and give you enough relief to start rehab.
Avoid taking NSAIDs or other pain relief medicine to control pain if you are continuing activities that can further damage your tendon. If you don't feel the pain, you won't know that your elbow is getting worse.
Most cases of tennis elbow are treated without surgery. Less than 5 out of 100 cases require surgery. 2 You and your doctor might consider surgery if several months of tendon rest and rehabilitation (rehab) haven't stopped the pain or returned the flexibility and strength to your forearm.
Consider surgery if:
During surgery, a doctor will most likely cut (release) the tendon, remove damaged tissue from the tendon, or both. In some cases, tendon tears can be repaired.
After surgery, rehab is needed to restore flexibility and strength in the forearm.
Surgery for tennis elbow involves cutting (releasing) the tendon and removing damaged tissue from the tendon. In some cases, tendon tears are repairable (reattached) if the repair can be done without overtightening the tendon. These procedures can be done both arthroscopically and through a larger incision (open surgery) or with a combination of the two techniques.
What to think about
There are different approaches to surgery for tennis elbow, such as where to enter the elbow and what type of reconstruction or repair on the tendon is done. Surgical technique is determined by the type, location, and severity of the injury and by the doctor's preference and experience.
There is no strong medical research that shows that one type of surgery is better than another or that surgery is better than other treatment. 4
The success of surgery depends in large part on the amount of time and effort you put into a rehab program.
Other treatment for tennis elbow pain includes physical rehabilitation (rehab), acupuncture, topical nitric oxide, shock wave therapy, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
Physical rehab is combined with tendon rest to restore flexibility and build muscle strength. Rehab is needed after surgery too.
Other treatment choices
A physical rehab program includes:
Complementary or alternative medicine treatments
Complementary or alternative treatments are sometimes used along with traditional therapy to treat tennis elbow. Although there is no solid scientific evidence that these therapies relieve pain and restore elbow flexibility and strength, some people report them as helpful. Complementary or alternative treatments may include:
What to think about
A physical rehab program not only helps heal injured tendons and muscles but also helps prevent further injury.
Physical rehab combined with tendon rest is the main tennis elbow treatment. Corticosteroid shots are only considered if several weeks of rest and rehab have not reduced symptoms. Surgery may be considered after 6 to 12 months of nonsurgical treatment.
If the type of work you do is causing your injury, an occupational therapist may help you change how you are working or the kind of work that you do.
Other Places To Get Help
Last Revised: January 10, 2013
Coombes BK, et al. (2010). Efficacy and safety of corticosteroid injections and other injections for management of tendinopathy: A systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Lancet, 376(9754): 1751–1767.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and American Academy of Pediatrics (2010). Medial and lateral epicondylitis. In JF Sarwark, ed., Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care, 4th ed., pp. 370–374. Rosemont, IL: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Rasouli A, Gupta R (2007). Elbow, wrist, and hand injuries. In PJ McMahon, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Sports Medicine, pp. 146–159. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Buchbinder R, et al. (2011). Surgery for lateral elbow pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (3).
Bissett L, et al. (2011). Tennis elbow, search date June 2009. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
Paoloni J, et al. (2003). Topical nitric oxide application in the treatment of chronic extensor tendinosis at the elbow. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 31(6): 915–920.
Buchbinder R, et al. (2005). Shock wave therapy for lateral elbow pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (4). Oxford: Update Software.
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