What Is Tennis Elbow?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

Tennis elbow is a condition that produces severe, burning pain over the bone at the side of the elbow. The medical term for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis. The pain results from inflammation of the tendon that attaches muscle to the bony projection (called the epicondyle) on the outside of the elbow.

Tennis elbow usually begins with mild pain and can worsen over time. The pain is worsened by pressing on the affected area, by lifting objects particularly with extension of the wrist. Using a screwdriver can worsen the injury and cause pain. In advanced cases, even simple movements of the elbow joint can produce pain.

While tennis elbow affects up to half of people who participate in racquet sports, most people who develop tennis elbow do not play racquet sports. Work activities that involve frequent use of the forearm muscles, such as meat cutting, painting, plumbing, or weaving are also associated with the development of tennis elbow. Most people who develop the condition are between the ages of 30 and 50 years, but it can affect people of any age. In most cases, those affected do not notice a particular injury or traumatic event before the condition arises.

Tennis elbow is usually easily diagnosed by a physical examination. Up to 90% of cases can be remedied by nonsurgical treatments, and symptoms usually diminish within four to six weeks with appropriate treatment.

Treatment goals include pain relief and prevention of symptom recurrence. Initial treatments may include application of ice packs to the elbow and use of anti-inflammatory medications (such as ibuprofen) for pain relief. Later, braces or wrist splints may be recommended along with range of motion exercises and other forms of physical therapy. Corticosteroid injections in the elbow area can be beneficial in more serious cases of tennis elbow. When performing activities that put the elbow at risk, a tennis elbow strap can often be helpful to prevent reinjury.

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Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/9/2014