Tennis Elbow: Causes, Risk Factors, Symptoms and Treatment

By Nichola Walker COTA/L

As an occupational therapist assistant, I do a lot of repetitive arm and wrist motions.  I had heard of tennis elbow, but as a non-tennis player, it was not the first thing that popped into my head when I started having elbow pain, soreness and difficulty picking up and maintaining a grasp on items. After much research, trial and error to get rid of my elbow pain, this is what I have learned.

First, what is tennis elbow?

Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis) is a painful condition that occurs when tendons in the elbow are damaged from overuse from repetitive movements of the arm and wrist.  The bump on the outer part of the elbow (the lateral epicondyle) can be very sore and painful even to the slightest touch. Tennis elbow affects up to 3% of the adult population, but in spite of the name, less than 5% are linked to playing tennis.

Causes: The tendons of the elbow specifically those at the end of the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) muscle, may develop small tears that lead to inflammation. Left untreated it may become chronic. Tennis elbow can be caused by overuse and stress of the muscles, poor technique, or gripping a tennis racket too tightly while hitting the tennis ball back and forth.

Risk Factors: Occupations that involve repetitive use of the wrist and arms, such as painters, plumbers, cooks, therapists, typists and of course tennis players are more likely to develop tennis elbow.  Age.  While tennis elbow affects people of all ages, it’s most common in adults between the ages of 30 and 50.

Symptoms: The most common symptoms include that oh so terrible pain, on the outer part of the elbow resulting in difficulty with effective grasp and ability to pick up things.You would think that doing simple things such as picking up a plate of food, a coffee cup, turning a doorknob, squeezing out a washcloth would be a piece of cake….No! the pain and weakness make that very difficult to do, which can lead to frustration and feelings of incompetence.

Tennis Elbow Treatment: It can be complicated to treat tennis elbow, however, there are many things you can do that will start to improve the symptoms. Avoid or limit activites that aggravate your elbow, implement a good rehabilitation and exercise program. Medications such as  ibuprofen, Naproxen, and aspirin will help to relieve the pain and decrease inflammation. Consult your doctor prior to taking medications for any extended period of time.   Most of all rest! Giving your elbow a rest is hard, but it is very important in the early stages of healing. Use your nondominant hand to do as many tasks as possible. Your doctor may suggest getting a steroid injection to relieve swelling and pain.  Once the pain is relieved, physical therapy can help strengthen muscles and tendons. These include stretching, range-of-motion and strengthening exercises.

As mentioned previously, Tennis elbow can be extremely painful to the touch or while doing simple everyday tasks.  Repetitive motions, overuse and poor technique of the wrist and arm are the most common reasons you develop tennis elbow. Being aware of the risk factors and what to or not do can save you a lot of pain and frustration. Keep in mind that early treatment can prevent tennis elbow from becoming a chronic issue.

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