While tennis elbow is usually a fairly mild condition for which there are a number of effective treatments available, it is still something that is best avoided completely as it can take a while to heal and can come back if you don’t Take appropriate measures to strengthen the area.
For more information about tennis elbow, including what causes it and how you can prevent it, we spoke to Karen Gambardella, a physical therapist at Bupa Health Clinics.
What is tennis elbow? How can you identify it?
Pain or tenderness on the outside of the elbow is lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as tennis elbow, although it can occur with any sport. Tennis elbow is the leading cause of forearm pain and affects men and women alike, with the dominant arm being affected more often.
It can often be confused with golfer̵
If you experience pain when making a fist, grasping, or extending your wrist and fingers, you may have a tennis elbow.
What causes it
Tennis elbow is an overuse injury that usually occurs in the muscles and tendons of the forearm. There are several muscles in your forearm that are responsible for stretching your wrist and hand. These muscles all adhere to the same place on the elbow and form a common extensor tendon.
The tennis elbow is usually triggered by repeated stress or overuse of these forearm muscles, which can lead to micro-tears or a thickening of the tendon. While you can get it from playing tennis, it actually only makes up a relatively small percentage of the cases. More often, it is caused by everyday activities that involve repetitive lifting and grasping, such as decorating or gardening.
How can you prevent that?
There are steps you can take to reduce the strain on the muscles and tendons around your elbow. You may need to change your technique to do this, or you may need to reduce the time it takes to exercise.
Some ways you can help prevent tennis elbow include:
- Identify the repetitive actions you take and try to avoid or change them.
- Take breaks during or between tasks that use your arms.
- When you lift, carry the weight close to your body, with your palms facing up.
- Whenever you play a sport, make sure you are using the correct technique. You might want a coach to help you with this.
- Make sure you are using devices that are right for you. For example, make sure your racket handle is the right size.
- Include exercises in your exercise regimen that will help strengthen your elbow. A physical therapist can help and reduce the risk of re-injury.
How do you handle it?
Treatment for tennis elbow depends on how long you’ve had it and what treatments you’ve tried.
To achieve full recovery, you need to rest your arm and avoid the activities that make it worse. This also gives your tendon time to heal. Most people find that their tennis elbow improves within a year, and there are a few self-help methods you can try:
- Lift objects with the palm up, not down, as this will put less strain on your damaged muscles. However, avoid lifting and grasping wherever you can.
- Placing a cold compress on your elbow like a bag of frozen peas or a heat pack like a hot water bottle can provide temporary relief from the pain. Do not apply ice or a heat pack directly to your skin as it could damage it, and do not leave it on for more than 15 minutes every few hours.
- You can also try wearing a special clasp, strap, splint, or brace around your forearm when engaging in activities that can trigger tennis elbow. These are supposed to relieve the pressure on your tendon and support your arm muscles. This can be combined with physiotherapy.
- If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. It is worth consulting your pharmacist to find out which medication is best for pain recommendation.
While these treatments can help reduce the discomfort initially, strengthening the area is important to restore muscle balance in the forearm and reduce the risk of symptoms recurring when activity levels increase. A physical therapist can help, and is usually recommended by your GP if the pain persists.
If this doesn’t work and your pain is still severe, your doctor will look into other treatments, such as a steroid joint injection or surgery.
If you have it, how long does it take to go away and is it likely to come back?
Many people with mild tennis elbow symptoms will find that their pain subsides after four to six weeks with rest and self-help treatments. If your symptoms do not improve after this time, contact your GP. If you have severe elbow pain, cannot move your elbow, or have loss of sensation, contact your doctor immediately.
Physiotherapy can also play an important role in treating tennis elbow, and you can discuss a referral for physical therapy with your GP.
To reduce the risk of tennis elbow recurrence, it is important to strengthen the forearm muscles before restarting your previous levels of activity. A physical therapist can guide you in the most convenient ways and help you get back to exercise safely.