6 Surprising Facts About "Tennis" Elbow

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It may start with an ache on the outside of your elbow. As the weeks or months pass, the feeling worsens to a severe burning pain. Your grip weakens and your elbow feels sensitive to the touch. Shaking hands, shaving, twisting your arm, or lifting objects as light as coffee cups can become nearly impossible.

You may be suffering from a full-blown case of lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, and you don’t ever have to pick up a racket to develop it. When you understand more about this common overuse injury, you can take steps to treat it and avoid it in the future.

1. Often, it has nothing to do with tennis. 

Stress on your elbow from sports or work ranks as the main cause of tennis elbow. As many as half of tennis players eventually develop tennis elbow during their careers, but fewer than 1 in 10 people who has tennis elbow plays the game. Many baseball and football players, fencers, and others in throwing or racket sports also experience this common elbow injury. 

About 5% of people whose jobs involve repetitive arm motions or vibrating tools also develop tennis elbow. This includes many auto assembly workers, painters, musicians, nail technicians, carpenters, and dentists.

2. The likely cause has changed.

Orthopedic specialists once blamed inflammation in the tendon and joint for the pain and discomfort of tennis elbow. Now with the use of advanced imaging, they’re not so sure. Tiny tears in the muscle may contribute. So might poor blood supply to the area, improper healing, and degeneration of cells in the muscles and tendons.

3. Your doctor needs to examine more than your elbow.

If you schedule a visit complaining of elbow pain, your doctor will thoroughly inspect your entire upper body before making a diagnosis. 

Of course, your doctor will look at your elbow, too. Its strength, appearance, range of motion, and stability all provide clues. A thorough exam rules out other causes of elbow pain, including nerve damage or arthritis

4. Exercise is one of the best treatments.

Done consistently and correctly, exercise can relieve pain from tennis elbow. Focusing on the movement when you’re lowering rather than raising a weight seems especially helpful. Structured physical therapy can help you master the right exercise. Your doctor might suggest exercising less intensely or not as often as usual.

5. Most people don’t need surgery. 

Many cases of tennis elbow resolve within a year, either on their own or with a combination of treatments. Home therapies can be highly effective. They include ice, exercises, over-the-counter pain relievers, compression bandages, and avoiding the repetitive movement that caused the pain

Conservative treatments are not effective for about 10 to 15% of patients. For these patients, the doctor may recommend surgery to release, repair, or remove damaged tissue around the tendon. 

6. Your attitude can aid your recovery.

A recent study in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery followed about 100 patients with tennis elbow for a year. Some described their conditions with words like temporary, weak or reversible. These patients improved more than those who used the words damaged, degenerated or permanent. 

An optimistic view may help you cope. Plus, it encourages you to follow your healthcare team’s instructions for getting better.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Lee DO, Gong HS, Kim JH, et al. The relationship between positive or negative phrasing and patients’ coping with lateral epicondylitis. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2014 Apr;23(4):567-572. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1058274614000512

  2. Lee S, Ko Y, Lee W. Changes in pain, dysfunction, and grip strength of patients with acute lateral epicondylitis caused by frequency of physical therapy: a randomized controlled trial. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014 Jul;26(7):1037-1040.

  3. Mishra AK, Skrepnik NV, Edwards SG, et al. Efficacy of platelet-rich plasma for chronic tennis elbow: a double-blind, prospective, multicenter, randomized controlled trial of 230 patients. Am J Sports Med. 2014 Feb;42(2):463-471.

  4. Patel RM, Lynch TS, Amin NH, et al. The thrower’s elbow. Orthop Clin North Am. 2014 Jul;45(3):355-376.

  5. Peterson M, Butler S, Eriksson M, et al. A randomized controlled trial of eccentric vs. concentric graded exercise in chronic tennis elbow (lateral elbow tendinopathy). Clin Rehabil. 2014 Sep;28(9):862-872. http://cre.sagepub.com/content/28/9/862.

  6. Pitzer ME, Seidenberg PH, Bader DA. Elbow tendinopathy. Med Clin North Am. 2014 Jul;98(4):833-849.

  7. Tennis elbow. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/tennis-elbow.html.

  8. Tosti R, Jennings J, Sewards JM. Lateral epicondylitis of the elbow. Am J Med. 2013 Apr;126(4):357.e1-e6.

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