Take tennis elbow, for instance, which is estimated to impact 6.5 million to 9.5 million people annually in the United States, typically aged 40-60. It does not just afflict those who play racquet sports, but affects people who perform repetitive motions with their forearms and wrists, like golfers, fitness enthusiasts, DIY-ers, musicians, gamers and construction and manufacturing workers.
This overuse injury typically starts gradually with pain at the outside of the elbow and forearm, but can worsen over time as tendons in the forearm become inflamed or tear. Symptoms include a dull ache, sharp pain when using the forearm and wrist, stiffness at the elbow, weak grip strength and numbness or tingling in the fingers.
Initial recommended treatment is rest, ice and pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, which may provide short-term relief. Other over-the-counter options include straps, compression braces, cryosleeves and elbow splints, which can temporarily mask symptoms.
Physical therapists can oversee a regimen of strengthening and stretching exercises, combined with manual therapy such as instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM). Healthcare professionals also can administer ultrasound, TENS/EMS and acupuncture to alleviate pain, but these treatments must be ongoing to be most effective, and they’re not done at home. Injections of steroids and platelet-rich plasma are used as well, but are costly, and offer varying durations of effectiveness.
A last resort is surgery, which involves detaching parts of the forearm muscles or separating and destroying the nerves that transmit pain signals. This invasive procedure is followed by a rehabilitation program.
Ultimately, tennis elbow sufferers are left with over-the-counter tools that don’t ultimately cure their condition; ongoing and time-consuming in-office therapies with healthcare providers; expensive injections that may not deliver lasting results; or surgery, which generally is only warranted in five percent of cases.