Tennis elbow (which is also called lateral epicondylitis and lateral epicondylalgia) is a situation in which the outer section of an elbow becomes very tender and consistently sore. It is caused by overuse and occurs at the extension tendon that derives from the lateral epicondyle. While the name “tennis elbow” suggests a link to tennis or other racquet sports, it can also be caused by climbing and swimming, playing guitar, waiters and manual labourers, and other daily activities. The symptoms related to tennis elbow are tenderness over the lateral epicondyle, pain on the outside of the elbow, pain from wrist lifting movements and extension, and morning stiffness. The pain occurs in the area where tendons and bones meet on the outside of the elbow, and is a chronic pain that can be treated with rest and ice. In rare cases, surgery may be required.
Tennis elbow is a muscle strain injury caused by overuse. It happens because of repeated contractions of the forearm muscles that you use to raise and straighten your wrist and hand. Repeated stress and motions to the tissue in the elbow can cause inflammation and a chain of tiny tears in the tendons that attach the bony prominence on the outside of the elbow to the forearm muscles. Tennis elbow can be caused by playing tennis, obviously, particularly in amateur athletes. Pro athletes tend to be in excellent condition with textbook technique. Amateur athletes may have weaker conditioning and may not be following the proper technique, resulting in stress on the elbow. It can be caused by other activities however, including painting, using plumbing tools, driving screws, excessive computer mouse use, and cutting up meat. Sudden forceful pulls, forceful extensions, and direct blows to the epicondyle can also lead to tennis elbow. Thus, it can be caused by swimming or climbing as well.
Tennis elbow generally heals on its own over time, although there are some things you can do to help speed up the process. It is important to rest the elbow. This means stopping playing tennis or any other activity that puts stress on the elbow tendon. You should also ice the elbow. Make sure the ice is wrapped in a thin towel to prevent any skin damage, such as frostbite. Ice for approximately 20 minutes at a time and do this several times a day. You may also want to purchase and wear an elbow strap. This will help reduce strain and stress on the tendon. With this treatment, followed by physiotherapy, your tennis elbow should clear up. If after 6-12 months it has not gone away however, your doctor may suggest surgery. The American Society for Surgery of the Hand has more information about tennis elbow, treatment options, and the surgery.
For tennis elbow, rehabilitation and treatment are similar. It is important to rest and ice your elbow to help reduce the pain. Once the pain goes down, you can start rehab. You will want to do exercises to help strengthen and stretch your muscles. Make sure to increase the duration and intensity of these exercises gradually however, and if you feel pain make sure to stop immediately. You may want to wear a forearm brace to limit stress on the injured tissue. To prevent tennis elbow (if you play tennis) make sure you use the proper technique on your ground strokes, as improper form can lead to damage. You should also have excellent footwork and use the proper grip size. The time frame for recovery depends entirely on how you react to physical therapy and treatment, and how severe your injury is. A rough estimate is 4-6 months, although this can vary.