The medical term for tennis elbow is 'lateral epicondylitis' and is associated with the overuse or repetitive strain of the muscles and tendons around the elbow. Even though it is referred to as tennis elbow, only around 1 in 20 patients develop the condition playing tennis! It is similar to golfer’s elbow however the pain affects the outside of the elbow, not the inside of the elbow (as with golfer’s elbow).
The primary cause, as described above, is overuse of the elbow, however a number of other activities and sports can contribute to the development of lateral epicondylitis, such as other racquet sports (squash, badminton), swimming and any sport involving throwing. Work that involves repetitive movement of the arm on one side (for example, carpenters and gardeners are prone to the condition) or any repetitive arm movements, from heavy lifting to computer use, can cause tennis elbow. People tend to develop tennis elbow from the age of 30.
The main symptom of tennis elbow is pain – sometimes extreme pain – on the outside of the elbow, which can then spread along the forearm towards the hand. In more extreme cases it can be hard to move the wrist and fingers, making simple tasks such as holding a glass of water or a phone very painful.
Tests / Diagnosis
A physical examination is generally sufficient to diagnose the condition, however an x-ray may be necessary to check that any pain is not being caused by another condition, for example arthritis. In some cases, an MRI scan may be required, again to rule out any other cause.
Tennis elbow can last for a long time (many months) and in some instances can simply go away on its own, although this can take anywhere from six months to two years (and even then, it may not).
The most important initial treatment is to avoid those activities that cause the condition, and taking pain medication and/or applying ice to the elbow. A tennis elbow brace or strap may also help, as may physiotherapy.
The next steps if the measures above do not help, include:
- Steroid injection.
- Autologous blood patch injection.
- Platelet-rich plasma injection.
Where none of these treatments are effective, surgery is an option to remove the damaged section of the relevant tendon.