What is tennis elbow?
If you have pain on the outside of your elbow, you may have tennis elbow.
Tennis elbow is when there is a tear or swelling in the tendons that attach the muscle of the forearm to the bone in the upper arm. It is caused by repeated use of the muscles around the elbow.
If you stop doing whatever has caused the injury, tennis elbow usually gets better without treatment, but recovery can be slow, taking anything from a few months to 2 years.
What are the symptoms of tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow can cause the outside of the elbow and the upper forearm to feel sore and tender to touch. The pain may build up over several weeks until it becomes a severe, burning pain.
Other symptoms can include swelling of the area, and weakness or stiffness in the forearm. It may hurt to do certain movements, like shake hands or turn a doorknob. Pressing on the outside of the elbow may make the pain worse.
What causes tennis elbow?
You can get tennis elbow pain from playing tennis or from using your wrist and forearm a lot in other activities such as gardening, painting and other racquet sports.
You may also get tennis elbow if your work involves repeated movements of the wrist and forearm such as butchery, carpentry and plumbing.
Repetitive use of a computer keyboard or mouse is another possible cause.
How can tennis elbow be treated and prevented?
If you have tennis elbow, it may go away on its own without treatment. You do not need to immobilise the elbow with a sling. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) suggests that you remain active, but avoid actions that cause significant pain and don’t lift heavy objects with your hands facing down.
Using an ice pack regularly and taking pain relievers can help. You may choose to use non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), but research has not been able to clearly show that they definitely help recovery.
If your pain persists, and certainly if it has not improved after 6 to 12 weeks, it is advisable to see a physiotherapist. A physiotherapist can suggest exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles in the arm, and may recommend that you wear a brace or strap on your forearm to reduce stress on the painful area.
If your pain is severe and does not improve, your doctor may suggest corticosteroid injections, although these are only used for short-term relief. Another type of therapy, called platelet-rich plasma injections, may also be an option.
Surgery for tennis elbow is rarely needed, but might be used if other treatments do not work over several months.
Your doctor or physiotherapist may also suggest ways you can change how you do certain tasks, to reduce the strain on your arm.
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Last reviewed: January 2021