Muscles, ligaments, and tendons hold the elbow joint together.
Lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, involves the muscles and tendons of your forearm. Your forearm muscles extend your wrist and fingers. Your forearm tendons — often called extensors — attach the muscles to bone. They attach on the lateral epicondyle. The tendon usually involved in tennis elbow is called the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis (ECRB).
Athletes are not the only people who get tennis elbow. Many people with tennis elbow participate in work or recreational activities that require repetitive and vigorous use of the forearm muscle.
Painters, plumbers, and carpenters are particularly prone to developing tennis elbow. Studies have shown that auto workers, cooks, and even butchers get tennis elbow more often than the rest of the population. It is thought that the repetition and weight lifting required in these occupations leads to injury.
Most people who get tennis elbow are between the ages of 30 and 50, although anyone can get tennis elbow if they have the risk factors. In racquet sports like tennis, improper stroke technique and improper equipment may be risk factors.
Your doctor may recommend additional tests to rule out other causes of your problem.
- X-rays. These tests provide clear images of dense structures like bone. They may be taken to rule out arthritis of the elbow.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. If your doctor thinks your symptoms are related to a neck problem, an MRI scan may be ordered. MRIs scans show details of soft tissues, and will help your doctor see if you have a possible herniated disk or arthritis in your neck. Both of these conditions often produce arm pain.
- Electromyography (EMG). Your doctor may order an EMG to rule out nerve compression. Many nerves travel around the elbow, and the symptoms of nerve compression are similar to those of tennis elbow.
Approximately 80% to 95% of patients have success with nonsurgical treatment.
Rest. The first step toward recovery is to give your arm proper rest. This means that you will have to stop participation in sports or heavy work activities for several weeks.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines. Drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen reduce pain and swelling.
Wrist stretching exercise
Wrist stretching exercise with elbow extended.
Physical therapy. Specific exercises are helpful for strengthening the muscles of the forearm. Your therapist may also perform ultrasound, ice massage, or muscle-stimulating techniques to improve muscle healing.
Brace. Using a brace centered over the back of your forearm may also help relieve symptoms of tennis elbow. This can reduce symptoms by resting the muscles and tendons.
Steroid injections. Steroids, such as cortisone, are very effective anti-inflammatory medicines. Your doctor may decide to inject your damaged muscle with a steroid to relieve your symptoms.
Extracorporeal shock wave therapy. Shock wave therapy sends sound waves to the elbow. These sound waves create “microtrauma” that promote the body’s natural healing processes. Shock wave therapy is considered experimental by many doctors, but some sources show it can be effective.
Equipment check. If you participate in a racquet sport, your doctor may encourage you to have your equipment checked for proper fit. Stiffer racquets and looser-strung racquets often can reduce the stress on the forearm, which means that the forearm muscles do not have to work as hard. If you use an oversized racquet, changing to a smaller head may help prevent symptoms from recurring.
If your symptoms do not respond after 6 to 12 months of nonsurgical treatments, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Most surgical procedures for tennis elbow involve removing diseased muscle and reattaching healthy muscle back to bone.
The right surgical approach for you will depend on a range of factors. These include the scope of your injury, your general health, and your personal needs. Talk with your doctor about the options. Discuss the results your doctor has had, and any risks associated with each procedure.
Open surgery. The most common approach to tennis elbow repair is open surgery. This involves making an incision over the elbow.
Open surgery is usually performed as an outpatient surgery. It rarely requires an overnight stay at the hospital.
Arthroscopic surgery. Tennis elbow can also be repaired using miniature instruments and small incisions. Like open surgery, this is a same-day or outpatient procedure.
Surgical risks. As with any surgery, there are risks with tennis elbow surgery. The most common things to consider include:
Nerve and blood vessel damage
Possible prolonged rehabilitation
Loss of strength
Loss of flexibility
The need for further surgery
Rehabilitation. Following surgery, your arm may be immobilized temporarily with a splint. About 1 week later, the sutures and splint are removed.
After the splint is removed, exercises are started to stretch the elbow and restore flexibility. Light, gradual strengthening exercises are started about 2 months after surgery.
Your doctor will tell you when you can return to athletic activity. This is usually 4 to 6 months after surgery. Tennis elbow surgery is considered successful in 80% to 90% of patients. However, it is not uncommon to see a loss of strength.