It's called tennis elbow, but you don't have to be a tennis player to get it. Anyone who does repetitive arm and wrist movements is at risk. This could include painters, plumbers, factory line workers, carpenters, anglers, and other athletes. The pain caused by tennis elbow can be debilitating, which is bad news if using your elbow is part of your job. But thankfully, the condition usually heals on its own with rest.
What exactly is tennis elbow and how do you know if you have it? What's the best form of treatment and how long will it take? Keep reading to find out.
An injury or blow to the elbow doesn't cause tennis elbow. Rather, a constant overload of the tendons that connect your forearm muscles to the bony bump on the outer side of the elbow leads to tennis elbow. Your forearm muscles are those that stabilize and extend the wrist and fingers. Repetitive motions put strain on this muscle and cause small tears in the attached tendons. In the game of tennis, the action of swinging a racquet back and forth using poor stroke technique or using a racquet that's too large increases your risk for tennis elbow.
The tiny tears weaken the tendons in your elbow, causing inflammation, tenderness, and pain. This pain focuses mainly on the outside of the elbow, but it can spread down your arm to your wrist. Many people describe the pain as a burning sensation. Pain usually starts out mild and gradually worsens over the course of weeks and months. You'll especially feel the pain when you try to perform simple tasks like gripping a racquet, holding a cup, picking up a tool, shaking someone's hand, or turning a doorknob.
Most people who get tennis elbow are between the ages of 30 and 50, but anyone at any age is susceptible. Sometimes folks just have bad luck and get tennis elbow without having done frequent repetitive movements.
In most cases, you can self-diagnose tennis elbow by its symptoms. The initial method of treatment includes home remedies. The best way for tennis elbow to heal is rest. No more tennis and no more repetitive arm movements. Try to use your hand, wrist, and arm as little as possible. Put your arm in a sling if it helps to keep you from using it. Take over-the-counter pain medications like aspirin or ibuprofen to alleviate the pain and tenderness. Place ice on your elbow for 15 minutes several times a day.
When three to four weeks of self-care remedies don't seem to do the trick, make an appointment to see your doctor. X-rays, MRI, or nerve tests may be done to rule out other possible conditions that cause similar pain. When tennis elbow is diagnosed, your doctor may recommend physical therapy sessions to strengthen your forearm muscles. You may also be advised to wear a special arm brace that fits over the back of your forearm. A steroid shot of cortisone may be injected in your forearm to speed healing in your tendons and relieve symptoms.
Talk with your physician about shock wave therapy, an experimental form of treatment that may promote healing.
The good news is that nearly 95 percent of patients with tennis elbow heal without surgery. If you continue experiencing a pain after a year of nonsurgical treatments, your next step may be surgery.