Tennis Elbow: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments


Tennis Elbow can kill your tennis enjoyment and performance. Thankfully it is a very common and treatable condition. We’ve got you covered with some top strategies for spotting the signs of the injury and stopping the ache and getting you back to your best on the court.

What is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis Elbow is most commonly found in tennis players—however, it can result from any repetitive motion of the wrist including gripping, twisting, and pounding. Hammering, hedge-clipping, painting, using a screwdriver, even excessive texting, plus all other types of repetitive movement activities can result in tennis elbow.

It occurs from damaging the tendons of the arm and its medical name is Lateral Epicondylitis. At the end of the Humerus bone are the Lateral Epicondyle and the Medial Epicondyle which are connected to the forearm by tendons which can become damaged from overuse.

A medical diagram showing Lateral Epicondylitis

You’ll notice you have Tennis Elbow when your elbow starts swelling, your forearm tingles and you get an electric surge of pain when you pick up an object. The moment you spot the symptoms of tennis elbow you must take action straight away.

For tennis players, the most common causes are poorly executed backhanded swings, late forehanded swings that uncomfortably bend the wrist, and snapping the wrist in a bad way during a serve.

Symptoms of Tennis Elbow

It might be called tennis “elbow” but if it’s not treated it can also affect your hands, wrists, and forearms, both on and off the court. The symptoms and inflammation start gradually and it’s usually best to start any treatment as early as possible before real pain strikes. It is possible, if you know how, to treat tennis elbow at home, and we have listed a couple of ways that will most definitely ease the pain.

Before the pain becomes unbearable there are some symptoms that present themselves in the beginning. These include:

  • Pain in the elbow that gets worse gradually
  • A striking pain in the back of the hand that travels up the elbow when making a grabbing or twisting motion
  • A noticeable weakening in your grasp or grip

As it gets worse other signs might show up like the inability to move or bend your elbow, a misshapen looking elbow, or it starts to look and feel like there’s a fracture or broken bone. In this case, we suggest you speak to your medical advisor as a matter of urgency to avoid long-term and permanent damage.

If you have identified that what you believe to be tennis elbow, then there is some good news: tennis it is relatively easy to cure, and hopefully you’ll be able to resume playing in just a few short weeks.

It should be noted that the below treatment methods are not designed to be used as a replacement for professional therapy. If you are in severe pain, it is recommended that you speak to your doctor or physiotherapist.

A fenale tennis player holding her elbow in pain

Causes of Tennis Elbow: how does it occur?

Usually, it’s a result of the overuse of the elbow, which leads to a contracting of the muscles in the forearm. This causes stress in the tissue which eventually causes several tears in the outer muscle.

As time goes on the pain becomes more severe, and moves down to the arm and the wrist. Other than it being incredibly painful it can result in an inhibited use of the arm and permanent damage.

So, how do you get tennis elbow in the first place? The exact cause of this condition varies from person to person, although there are some similarities that sufferers share.

The most likely cause of tennis elbow is by playing tennis for too long, especially for people who are over the age of 35. Additionally, those that play extended tennis matches may also experience tennis elbow, as well as not having the requisite strength or flexibility in the arms. Poor technique on groundstrokes can also contribute to tennis elbow, as does off-center hits and holding the racquet too tightly.

The impact that you feel from the ball hitting the racquet causes vibrations that are transferred from your arm to the elbow. These repeated blows and contractions of the forearm muscles can lead to inflammation – and in the worst cases, degeneration of the delicate tissue outside of the elbow.

Who is Most at Risk From Tennis Elbow?

Although anyone can experience tennis elbow from time to time, there are some characteristics that increase the likelihood of experiencing this condition.

Even if you are not a tennis player, you can still get tennis elbow from playing other sports that involve the use of holding a racquet, as well as throwing or catching balls, such as football players or golfers. Additionally, anyone who plays sports that involves lifts, reaches, or pulls can sustain the injury.

How to treat tennis elbow at home

Often, if picked up early enough, you can treat tennis elbow at home. However, if it feels like it’s not easing up or improving then we suggest you visit your GP for further advice.

Use the RICE Method

As stated previously, the onset of Tennis Elbow can be hard to detect at first, as the feelings of pain and discomfort take some time to manifest over several months. However, once you do notice your symptoms, the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) method should be your go-to tool for feeling better.

Rest

Unfortunately, tennis elbow is one of those things you can’t ‘just push through’. You need to rest the affected arm.

  • Take note of the warning signs of stress, overuse, and fatigue
  • When you start to experience any of the warning signs it’s time to rest the arm
  • Look at changing the grip on your racquet and if at all possible try using your other arm more
  • Taking time out to rest can reduce the symptoms, especially if there’s inflammation.

First of all, you should stop the repetitive movements that caused the condition in the first place (Rest). This period of rest can be aided by the use of ice early on to help control swelling and is most effective within 24 to 48 hours after swelling sets in.

Ice

A good approach to using ice is to apply it to your forearm for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, at least once per day.

Right when you start feeling the uncomfortable tingle of Tennis Elbow, put ice on it. This will reduce the swelling and increase the blood flow to these muscles. If you have an ice pack, that’s great—if not, just go the old favorite- a bag of frozen vegetables. You can also freeze a paper cup with water.

Make sure there’s something between the ice and your bare skin, as you don’t want to run that up and down your arm without a towel. Ice for twenty minutes a day and make sure not to over ice, as that will only make it worse.

For a more professional approach, you can purchase an ice pack.

Man treating his elbow with an ice pack

Compression

You can use an elastic bandage as a compressor for the inflamed area providing some relief. Have a supply of elastic bandages at home and in the car, as part of your first aid kit

You will need some assistance wrapping it, making sure the arm and elbow are wrapped correctly.

As simple as it sounds the compression from an elastic bandage helps support the joint and keeps the damaged tendons in place. It also plays a role in reducing any inflammation.

There are other treatments available but they require professional or medical intervention and help treat tennis elbow to a degree. These include:

  • Heat therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Low-level laser therapy
  • Blood injection
  • Botulinum toxin

It’s important to note that while it might start off as a slight pain or some discomfort, tennis elbow can become a serious condition, often needing surgery to treat it. It’s in your best interest to be aware of any unusual aches and pains in your elbow, forearm and wrist areas and treat them sooner rather than later.

Elevation

Keep the injured arm above the level of your heart whenever possible, this will help to reduce the swelling.

Once you believe you have recovered from your case of Tennis Elbow, it is then important to rest properly between workouts. Rest is the final step in our formula for getting better, as this is what allows the worn-down tissue to repair itself.

Perform Exercises and Stretches

Like most things, prevention is the best possible cure if your arms were strong enough, you wouldn’t experience the condition in the first place.

Doing sets of exercises that focus on your arms, back, neck, and upper body is the sure-fire way to reduce the chances of Tennis Elbow from happening again.

Diagram - how to do push ups

Additionally, even when you actually have the condition, doing some light, controlled, exercises can actually help in the recovery process instead of hindering it. At the same time, you also want to avoid over-exerting yourself, as this can make the road to recovery much harder.

There are no specialized exercises that you need to master to break up your tennis elbow, as any form of stretching in moderate quantities will do your sore tendons a world of good.

Soak in Epsom salts

Epsom salts are one of those miracle cures known for their anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxing properties and they help relieve the pain associated with tennis elbow.

  • Fill a sink or tub with warm water and add ½ to 1 cup of the Epsom salts to the water
  • Keep your elbow and forearm in the water for 15-20 minutes
  • Depending on the severity you can do this two to three times a week

Epsom salts contain magnesium which helps reduce the fatigue and tension and the salt itself draws out excess fluids from the inflammation.

Magical Magnesium

Muscle tension and fatigue is what makes tennis elbow particularly painful. Magnesium, as mentioned above, reduces both.

  • Add or increase magnesium-rich foods in your diet
  • Take a magnesium supplement

Magnesium not only reduces the fatigue and tension in the muscle, it also increases nerve function.

Over the Counter!

There are a lot of over the counter remedies that will instantly ease your suffering. Advil and Tylenol are going to be your best friend the next couple of days as they’ll numb the pain and make it possible to keep playing if you really want. Also, try some topical ointments like Icy Hot or BenGay—these are available as both creams and patches.

They feel strange at first, but they relax the nerves so you won’t feel constant pain throughout the day. Remember: always use the directed amount of these drugs on the back of the box. It might seem like more is better, but in fact overusing these over-the-counter remedies will decrease their effectiveness and add on harmful side-effects.

Brace Yourself!

Buy a tennis elbow brace online like the SIMIEN Tennis Elbow Brace. This high-rated brace will keep your arm steady and take the strain off your muscles when you’re playing tennis. It’s comfortable and breathable, so you can even wear it when you’re not playing if you’re experiencing a lot of discomfort.

Tennis player wearing an elbow brace

These braces are relatively inexpensive, so trying one is always a good option right when you’re experiencing the pain. Once your form improves, you’ll no longer have to worry about the discomfort of tennis elbow.

Get a New Racquet

One possible reason you’re experiencing Tennis Elbow is that your tennis racquet isn’t the right one for your play style. You need to choose a tennis raquet that’s easy to lift, comfortable to hold and the right size for your body.

If your racquet is too big/heavy, it will put unnecessary strain on your wrist and you’ll be unable to perform at your fullest. We wrote an article about how to best choose a racquet to mitigate Tennis Elbow that we’re sure you’ll find helpful. If you can get a racquet that is actively keeping your arm healthy, you won’t need to worry about the pain accompanying Tennis Elbow.

Improve Your Form

The main reason for Tennis Elbow is improper playing form. If you can get private lessons, you’ll be able to address exactly what you’re doing that’s causing your tennis elbow. Maybe it’s your serve, your backhand, or your forehand—whatever the cause, a second opinion is going to allow you to diagnose what the problem is.

If you can’t afford a private teacher at this time, videotape yourself playing and you’ll be able to get a good look at what might be wrong with your playing form. Once you fix your form, you’ll notice an increase in comfort as you play.

If that doesn’t work: Go to the Doctor

This should be a last resort as it’s the most expensive treatment on the list, and the most time-consuming. However, if your tennis elbow persists, by all means you should go to the doctor and get it treated by a medical professional. There are two things the doctor might do: steroid injections and surgery.

The first is by far more common. These steroids aren’t the ones you hear about weightlifters using—no, they actually help the muscles and tendons heal fast with a measured burst of steroidal relief. Usually, you’ll go to the doctor once or twice a week to get a steroid injection.

If this proves to be insufficient, surgery might be a good option. It may sound scary, but a Tennis Elbow surgery is quick, easy and often an out-patient procedure. Your insurance will cover some of the cost and you’ll be able to get back to your full playing potential.

Tennis elbow can be an unpleasant and painful condition that affects athletes more than anyone, especially those people who use their arms in repetitive ways, such as golfers and tennis players.

In America, around 3% of the population will suffer from tennis elbow every year, especially people between the ages of 30 and 50.

Conclusion

Tennis Elbow is an unfortunate reality that plagues the lives of a countless number of tennis players and non-players alike. It is more than likely that you, or someone you know, will experience this condition at some point in their lives, so preparation for the inevitable is often a good idea.

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