April 30, 2020

What is tennis elbow?

Also known as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is a common painful condition that occurs when the tendons in the elbows become aggravated and inflamed due to repetitive motions of the wrist and arm. Despite its name, this ailment doesn’t just afflict tennis players. In fact, sufferers include anyone who uses their arms to perform repetitive movements, such as painters, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, landscapers, cooks, assembly line workers and more. It typically affects people ages 40 to 60.

While pain can range from mild to intense, tennis elbow generally does not always go away on its own, and may linger and worsen. Pursuing treatment is the best way to address this condition and find relief. Let’s take a deeper look at what is tennis elbow.

Tennis Elbow Symptoms and Diagnosis

Also known as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is a common painful condition that occurs when the tendons in the elbows become aggravated and inflamed due to repetitive motions of the wrist and arm. Despite its name, this ailment doesn’t just afflict tennis players. In fact, sufferers include anyone who uses their arms to perform repetitive movements, such as painters, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, landscapers, cooks, assembly line workers and more. It typically affects people ages 40 to 60.

While pain can range from mild to intense, tennis elbow generally does not always go away on its own, and may linger and worsen. Pursuing treatment is the best way to address this condition and find relief. Let’s take a deeper look at what is tennis elbow.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Tendons connect muscles to bones. In tennis elbow, the extensor tendons that connect muscles in the forearm and wrist to the lateral aspect of the elbow experience microscopic tearing with repetitive motions.

These tears can cause an ache in the elbow and make it difficult to grip items, shake hands or turn a doorknob. Symptoms develop gradually, but over time, this dull ache or burning in the outer part of the elbow can become chronic pain. Your dominant arm is most likely the one to be affected.

You can see your doctor, who will ask about your activities and symptoms, as well as palpate your arm while you perform different motions. In some cases, you may receive an X-ray, MRI or electromyography test (EMG) to more definitively assess your condition.  

Treatment Options

While there are multiple treatment options for tennis elbow, not all are equally helpful or proven effective for each individual. Therefore, tennis elbow suffers often have to experiment with a variety of approaches or combine multiple treatments to identify which provides the best relief.

  • Rest. The first approach to treat elbow pain typically involves rest. This can be a challenge for those whose jobs require repetitive arm movements.
  • Pain relievers. Taking over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen and naproxen can temporarily alleviate the discomfort of tennis elbow but the pain will come back after it wears off.
  • Ice. Applying an ice pack to the affected area for 15 minutes several times per day may help with the immediate pain.
  • Strap or brace. Available over-the-counter, these tools apply compression and take the strain off the muscles in the forearm for temporary relief.
  • Cryosleeve.  This arm band combines cold therapy with compression to also provide temporary relief.
  • Physical therapy. Therapists perform instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM) treatments. Depending on the severity of the condition, therapists may require treatment three times a week for six to eight weeks. This schedule can be challenging for most people.
  • TENS and EMS. Delivering electrical impulses to the nerves may help block pain signals from reaching the brain.
  • Acupuncture. Inserting needles into specific parts of the arm aims to reduce the perception of pain.
  • Injections. Injections of steroids, such as cortisone, reduce inflammation. Platelet-rich plasma (PRP), which is developed from your own blood, is a newer and more expensive option. At the present time it’s not covered by insurance because there has not been enough testing. In the opinion of medical reimbursement experts, PRP is still in the experimental stages of establishing its efficacy.
  • Linear deep tissue massage device. The only one of its kind, the new E5 from Stā Active automates the proven clinical process (IASTM) that’s performed at physical therapy clinics and brings the technology at-home for maximum convenience. The E5 applies controlled microtrauma to the affected area. This breaks down adhesions, activates blood flow and stimulates cellular regeneration to promote tissue repair.
  • Surgery. Involves detaching parts of the forearm muscles or separating and destroying the nerves that transmit pain signals. It is followed by a rehabilitation program lasting several months.


Nate Stier MPT, LAT

Owner of Orthopedic & Sports Rehab Physical Therapy Clinics. Former Director of Rehabilitation for the Minnesota Vikings and Graduate of the Mayo School of Health and Sciences.



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