Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is a repetitive stress or overuse injury. It causes elbow joint pain and inflammation, especially when extending the arm. Despite the name, it isn’t just tennis that causes this injury. Any activity that requires repetitive wrist-twisting can lead to tennis elbow.
Nonsurgical interventions, like ice and rest, are often enough to heal the injury. If home care isn’t helping with your pain and mobility, an elbow specialist can evaluate your injury and suggest other treatments or even surgery.
What Is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow is an overuse injury. An overuse injury occurs when the tissue gets damaged due to repetitive motion. This is the opposite of an acute injury that happens all at once rather than developing over time. Tennis elbow results from overuse, while an elbow dislocation is acute, caused by one event.
The elbow joint is the conjunction of three bones: the humerus of the upper arm and the radius and ulna of the forearm. Some of the forearm muscles connect by tendons to protrusions on the humerus. These are called epicondyles.
Tennis elbow affects the tendon called the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) that connects the forearm muscle to the lateral epicondyles. Lateral refers to its location on the outside of the elbow and arm. This tendon and the attached ECRB muscle are involved in movements that extend the wrist and hand.
What Causes Tennis Elbow?
Overuse of the ECRB muscle and tendon leads to small tears and inflammation, tennis elbow. Twisting the wrist, especially when the arm is extended, is the motion that causes damage. Racquet sports require this motion, for instance, when using a backhand stroke.
Because of this, the injury has long been associated with tennis and similar sports, but playing tennis or racquetball is not the only cause of tennis elbow. Any twisting of the wrist over and over again can lead to the injury:
- Brushstrokes used in painting
- Turning a screwdriver
- Twisting pipes when doing plumbing work
- Typing and using a mouse
- Working with carpentry or woodworking tools
- Chopping with a knife
Several occupations have a higher risk of tennis elbow, including plumbers, carpenters, auto mechanics, painters, and butchers. People between the ages of 30 and 50 are most at risk for the injury, but it can occur in anyone at any age.
In some instances, doctors can’t pinpoint a cause for tennis elbow in someone who doesn’t engage in the typical associated repetitive wrist motions. This is called an idiopathic condition.
Is Elbow Pain the Only Symptom of Tennis Elbow?
Tingling pain in the elbow joint is a characteristic sign of tennis elbow. The pain is on the lateral, or outside, edge of the joint. It starts mild and gets worse with time. Many people describe the pain as a burning sensation.
Pain in and around the joint is the primary symptom, but there are often other signs. You might have pain that radiates down the forearm and into the back of the hand, especially when gripping or lifting an object or twisting the wrist. Your grip strength might be weaker than usual.
I Fell on My Elbow and My Arm is Numb, Do I Have Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow is most often caused by repetitive motion. The damage accumulates over time, eventually resulting in an overuse injury. In rare cases, you can get tennis elbow from a trauma, a single event, such as falling and hitting your elbow on the ground.
Because a traumatic cause is rare and elbow numbness is not a typical symptom of tennis elbow, it’s more likely that the fall caused another type of injury. A specialist can evaluate your symptoms, examine your elbow, and provide an accurate diagnosis.
What Else Causes Elbow Pain and Swelling?
If you have pain, swelling, or any other symptoms in or around the elbow, it’s best to see a specialist for an evaluation. Your symptoms might not match those of tennis elbow, but other elbow injuries are similar and respond well to treatment:
- Golfer’s elbow. This overuse injury is similar to tennis elbow but affects the inside of the joint.
- Pitcher’s elbow. Overuse can cause this injury, but it is most common in adolescents who are still growing.
- Elbow bursitis. Bursitis is inflammation of the bursa, a fluid-filled sac at the tip of the elbow. Pressure, trauma, and infections can cause this painful condition.
- Dislocation. A dislocation, or separation, between the surfaces of the elbow joint, happens suddenly and can be very painful.
- Osteoarthritis. Arthritis is the wearing down of cartilage in joints. This causes the bone to rub on bone, resulting in pain, swelling, and irritation.
Diagnosis and Treatment for Tennis Elbow
Because there are many causes of elbow pain, it’s important to see an elbow specialist for diagnosis. A specialist will examine your arm, take a medical history, and consider your symptoms. They might also want to do some imaging tests to see what’s happening inside your elbow joint. Typical treatments for tennis elbow include rest and icing, injections, and surgery.
For more information about tennis elbow, contact EmergeOrtho to schedule an appointment for a consultation with an elbow specialist.