Tennis Elbow: Racquet Optional!

Recently I talked about carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome of the wrist. Now I’d like to move up a notch and talk about issues with the ELBOW. Interestingly, we’ve got two different “sport” elbow problems- tennis elbow and golf elbow-and yet, you can develop either of these problems without ever picking up a racket or a club. Today, let’s talk about tennis elbow.

The medical name for “tennis elbow” is lateral epicondylitis, and this occurs when the tendons on the outside of the elbow are torn or strained. Typically the symptoms begin with an ache on the outside of your elbow, that gradually worsens until it becomes an intense burning pain that is worse when you grab or twist anything (opening car doors, jars, lifting groceries, etc.)

What causes tennis elbow? Any action that causes a repetitive movement can cause swelling and pain in the joint being used, and tennis elbow is no exception. In this case, the movement is a repeated twisting of the wrist and elbow, such as in a tennis stroke. However, other activities- like hammering, sawing, giving massages or working in an assembly line-can also cause “tennis” elbow.

Do kids get this? Not too often- the typical patient with tennis elbow is 30-50 years old, with an equal distribution of men and women.

Do you need an X-ray? An x-ray will not “show” tennis elbow, but some times an x-ray is done to rule out an underlying fracture.

How is tennis elbow treated? There are multiple things to do to treat tennis elbow, but the most important is relative rest- not a cast, but avoidance of the activity that caused the problem. Additionally, taking consistent over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen will help reduce both the pain and the swelling. Ice packs applied a few times per day, especially after activity, will also help. An ACE wrap can help control swelling, plus serves as a reminder to you not to overdo it! If these treatments are not enough to resolve the symptoms, then physical therapy, splinting and steroid injections are the next level of treatment. Rarely, surgery is required.

Prevention: If you are taking up a racquet sport (or joining a league and greatly increasing your time on the court), make sure to maintain good strength and flexibility in your arm muscles with light weights or resistance bands.

BOTTOM LINE: If you are developing persistent “outside” elbow pain, you might have “tennis elbow”- try rest, ice, compression, and anti-inflammatories as soon as possible, but if it persists, it’s time to see your family doctor.

PS- Happy August- change those air filters!

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