Tennis elbow is one of the most common injuries of the elbow but, despite the name, it's actually more common in non-tennis players than those wielding rackets. The fancy name for tennis elbow is "lateral epicondylitis," which describes the bony area on the elbow (lateral epicondyle) where the tendons become irritated or inflamed ("itis" means inflammation).
The tendons referred to in this injury are the wrist extensor tendons, the tendons responsible for bringing the back of your hand toward your elbow. If you can picture what it looks like when a tennis player performs a back-handed shot, that is the wrist motion we are referring to….hence the birth of the name "tennis elbow." See illustration below.*
Now that you have a better understanding of what tennis elbow is, it is easy to see that any action requiring the wrist to extend on a repetitive basis could lead to irritation in this area. It is common to see this injury flare up in painters, construction workers, tailor or seamstress and athletes who use a racket for their sport.
Pro quarterback Kirk Cousins and I talk more about overuse injuries in this quick video.
The diagnosis of tennis elbow typically just requires a physical exam by your primary care physician or sports medicine doctor. There are many treatment options available for tennis elbow, but it is important to keep in mind that this type of "overuse" injury can sometimes take anywhere from three months to two years to fully resolve. It can be a very frustrating injury to recover from!
Some of the first line steps I recommend to start with if you think you have tennis elbow are the following:
- Try to refrain from or significantly reduce the time you spend on the activity that is causing you to over use those extensor tendons and muscles in your forearm, when possible.
- Ice the painful area for 15-20 minutes a few times daily to help reduce the inflammation.
- Try using a tennis elbow strap found at your local drug store. If worn correctly, these straps can reduce the tension on the lateral epicondyle and provide relief if you are unable (or unwilling!) to follow step #1 above.
If the above steps are not helping you, it's time to call Holland Hospital's Sports Medicine experts at (616) 738-3884 for an evaluation and individualized treatment plan for your sore elbow.
Courtney Erickson-Adams, MD
Bone & Joint Center, Holland Michigan
Holland Hospital Sports Medicine