Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is a condition caused by overuse of the elbow, specifically the area where the tendons of the forearm muscles attach to the outside bony area of the elbow.
When overworked, these tendons may become inflamed, leading to pain and tenderness in the outer part of the elbow.
As the name suggests, this condition is common among people who play tennis; however, any sport or activity that involves overuse of the arm, forearm and hand muscles can cause this condition. Carpenters, painters, plumbers, butchers and other people whose jobs involve repetitive arm and elbow motions are prone to developing tennis elbow. This condition typically develops gradually, and it is most prevalent among adults between ages 30 and 50.
Causes of Tennis Elbow
Damage to a particular forearm muscle, the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB), often causes tennis elbow. This muscle helps to stabilize the wrist when the elbow is straight, and works to extend and raise the wrist. When the ECRB is overworked, it becomes weaker. This leads to microscopic tears forming in the muscle’s tendon at the point where it attaches to the bony bump on the outside of the elbow. Pain and inflammation occur as a result of the tendon tearing away from its attachment at the elbow.
Tennis Elbow Diagnosis
Unfortunately, no blood panel or other lab test can detect tennis elbow, and X-rays are only useful in checking bone structure and ruling out other problems.
Diagnosis involves taking a medical history and performing a physical examination. The doctor will check for pain that radiates from the outside of the elbow to the forearm as well as pain or tenderness when the tendon of the ECRB muscle is gently pressed. In some cases, an MRI may be used to reveal the extent of elbow inflammation.
Treatments for Tennis Elbow
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen, used in conjunction with rest and ice, can help in the treatment of tennis elbow. Wearing an elbow brace can take pressure off of the muscles, and cortisone injections can decrease pain and swelling.
People with this condition often see a physical therapist to learn stretching exercises that can help strengthen their forearm muscles. If the symptoms of tennis elbow have not improved after six to 12 months, surgery may be recommended to remove the damaged tissue and reattach healthy muscle to the bone.