When Should I Worry About...

What Is Tennis Elbow & How Is It Treated?

Sep. 26, 2023 - Katie McCallum

Tennis elbow might seem like a sports injury that speaks for itself. But the irony is, most people who have the condition don't play tennis at all.

"The medical term for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis," says Dr. Chia Wu, a Houston Methodist orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hand and upper extremity surgery. "It's very treatable, with many different options available. The modalities you pick should be a joint decision made with your doctor based on your lifestyle and expectation."

But since it's not an injury that plagues only tennis players, what is tennis elbow exactly? And what are the best ways to fix it? Dr. Wu answers these questions and more.

What causes tennis elbow?

For an injury with such a simple name, tennis elbow is somewhat complex to define.

"It's a condition that has been studied for a long time," says Dr. Wu. "But while there are known risk factors associated with it, there's actually no one definite cause of tennis elbow."

The theory behind why tennis elbow develops is rooted in how tendons attach at the small area of the outer elbow. Concentration of stress there can lead to tissue injury and irritation. 

"What we do know is that this injury is commonly associated with repetitive activities that involve the elbow," explains Dr. Wu. "But it can also be preceded by an episode of trauma to the elbow, or even be related to hormonal or endocrine changes, such as diabetes or thyroid problems."

In other words, while the injury can result from the repetitive motion of, say, swinging a racket — hence its name — you don't have to be a tennis player to experience it. Any work-related activities that involve heavy use of the wrist and forearm muscles, like frequently swinging a hammer, can increase a person's risk of developing tennis elbow.

What does tennis elbow feel like?

Tennis elbow causes pain — often sharp pain, at that — on the outside of the elbow.

"It's not usually associated with tingling or numbness, but the pain can radiate down the forearm or into the upper arm," says Dr. Wu. "It's most noticeable when a person is gripping or lifting something, especially if elbow rotation is also required."

Dr. Wu notes that people who perform manual labor will notice tennis elbow symptoms the most, of course. But the injury can make even everyday tasks, like wringing out a towel, opening a heavy door or lifting groceries bags, extremely painful.

"Tennis elbow is an annoying problem that isn't just painful, but can also be debilitating," adds Dr. Wu. "Activity modification is often required, so it's certainly something that's hard to ignore if it's ongoing."

To that end, treating tennis elbow can start on your own at home — resting the elbow as much as possible and using over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications.

"But if you still have pain after about a week, it's time to come in for evaluation," says Dr. Wu. "There are some other conditions that can masquerade as tennis elbow — a pinched nerve, for instance. These are less common, but it's always helpful to rule them out."

How long does tennis elbow last?

Whatever the cause of the stress and irritation leading to tennis elbow, healing of the injured tissue takes time. And even once healed, the injury can flare back up now and then.

"It's not uncommon for people to deal with tennis elbow pain for three to six months, sometimes even an entire year," says Dr. Wu. "We don't see every person with tennis elbow, though. Some percentage of people wait it out at home and never come in for help."

Given that the condition doesn't typically cause permanent damage if ignored, it's not unsafe to wait for it to resolve on its own. That said, many people find the pain itself hard to ignore.

"Tennis elbow can be very symptomatic, very bothersome — it can greatly affect a person's quality of life," says Dr. Wu. "It is also very treatable in that the majority of the patients do well with conservative treatment."

What should you do for tennis elbow?

The good news: There are several ways to treat tennis elbow. The bad news: There are generally no quick fixes, so you'll need to be persistent and diligent with treatment over time to achieve tennis elbow pain relief.

"For most people, we can treat tennis elbow with nonsurgical modalities," says Dr. Wu. "The most common ones are wearing a brace, performing recommended exercises and modifying your activity."

A tennis elbow brace is helpful in reducing symptoms by decreasing the stress concentration at the elbow, Dr. Wu says. The more you wear it, the better. Fortunately, tennis elbow braces and straps are fairly well tolerated, so it's feasible for a person to manage wearing one for most of the day.

Tennis elbow exercises, which can be performed by yourself at home or through formal physical therapy, are also helpful. Which option works best for you depends on your lifestyle and personality.

"Some people are fine with the take-home instructions of the exercises to perform on their own time at home — they prefer that even," says Dr. Wu. "Other people want more guidance and that dedicated appointment with a physical therapist. We always try to tailor treatment to the person, whatever helps them get it done."

As the symptom subsides, medications can be used to help relieve pain. Your doctor will recommend the anti-inflammatory that works best for you, based on your medical history and other factors.

"Injections can also help relieve pain, but predominantly in the short term," says Dr. Wu. "In fact, some research actually shows that injections can lead to more pain in the long-term as the injection wears off and the pain returns."

Activity modification, when possible, is important, too — finding a different way to wring out a towel or hold a hammer, for instance.

Over time, these treatments can bring improvement to tennis elbow, says Dr. Wu. Still, it's not uncommon for flare-ups to occur.

"A person might deal with the occasional flare up, where the pain comes back for a while. But it's typically manageable," adds Dr. Wu. "The person realizes a flare up is happening and gets their tennis elbow brace out or restarts their exercise program again — and after a week or two, the issue resolves."

When is surgery needed to fix tennis elbow?

Most cases of tennis elbow improve with nonsurgical treatment, but a small percentage of people do end up needing surgery.

"Tennis elbow treatment is very patient driven," says Dr. Wu. "The steps we take are largely based on a person's specific occupational and lifestyle needs. If your pain improves, no further treatment is needed. But if you remain symptomatic despite months of treatment, we start to consider surgery."

Tennis elbow surgery consists of an incision, two to three inches long, on the outside of the elbow. During the procedure, the non-healing tissue is removed and surrounding healthy tissue is brought into the area.

"It's a surgery that works really well for most people," adds Dr. Wu. "The outcomes of the surgery are very good."

Surgery isn't always necessary, and it's not right for everyone. But it's yet another tennis elbow treatment option to consider — if symptoms linger, and you're not able to modify your activity, for instance.

"It all depends on what you want out of treatment, whether that's pain relief, performing the sport you love or continuing to function at a high level for your job," says Dr. Wu. "It's another reason why consulting a specialist is so important. There are many factors to consider, and we can design a treatment program that makes sense for you."

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