Understanding tennis elbow and the treatments available to you.
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is a common injury associated with elbow pain.
Several sports and activities can cause this condition, including playing tennis and other racquet sports.
Tennis elbow is an inflammation of the tendons that connect the forearm muscles on the outside of the elbow. When the same motion is repeated over and over, the muscles and tendons in the forearms become damaged. This is what creates the pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow..
Your elbow joint is made up of three bones: the humerus, radius, and ulna. The humerus is your upper arm bone and the radius and ulna are in your forearm. At the bottom of the humerus, there are bony bumps called epicondyles. The bump on the outside of your elbow is called the lateral epicondyle.
Your forearm muscles extend your wrist and fingers. Your forearm tends, known as extensors, attach the muscles to the bone. The muscles and bone attach on the lateral epicondyle. The tendon typically injured in tennis elbow is called the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis (ECRB).
Symptoms of tennis elbow gradually develop over time. In most cases, the pain typically starts out mild and eventually worsens as weeks and months pass. There is usually no specific injury involved to cause symptoms.
Common signs of tennis elbow:
Pain or burning on the outer part of the elbow
Pain when lifting objects
Pain radiating down the forearm
The symptoms often worsen with increased forearm activity and are most often found in your dominant arm. Common triggering activities include turning a wrench, holding a racquet, or shaking hands.
When you visit a doctor there are many factors that will be considered during diagnosis. These include how your symptoms developed, occupational risk factors, and if you are actively involved in a recreational sport.
You will discuss what activities cause tennis elbow symptoms and the areas on your arm where symptoms occur. If you have previously injured your elbow or have a history of rheumatoid arthritis or nerve disease, be sure to let your doctor know.
Most physical examinations include a variety of tests to pinpoint the diagnosis. Your doctor may ask you to attempt to straighten your wrist and fingers against resistance to check for pain.
Additional testing may be necessary to rule out other possible causes. This may include:
Most patients have success with nonsurgical treatment. After diagnosis, it is important to give your arm a break and allow time to rest. This means that all participation in sports or heavy work activities will need to be avoided for a few weeks. In this case, drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen can be used to reduce the pain and swelling.
- Physical therapy: There are specific exercises that are used to strengthen the muscles on your forearm. Your physical therapist may also perform an ice massage or use muscle-stimulating techniques to heal your muscle.
- Brace: Using a brace over the back of your forearm may be recommended to relieve symptoms. This allows the muscles and tendons to rest.
- Steroid injections: Steriods can be injected in the painful area to relieve pain and swelling.
- Check your equipment: If a racquet sport played a role in your tennis elbow, your doctor may want to get your equipment checked. If your racquet is not a proper fit this can cause stress on your forearm.
If your tennis elbow symptoms do not change after 6 to 12 months on nonsurgical treatment, your doctor may recommend surgery. The right surgical approach will vary per patient.
Meet the specialists
Michael T. Ellerbusch, M.D.
Dr. Ellerbusch received his bachelor’s degree in Biology Pre-Medicine and Chemistry from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. While there, he was named a USA Today Academic All-American. He also received the Outstanding Senior Man Award and served as the commencement speaker at the graduation ceremony. He attended medical school at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois, where he graduated with high honors.
Ekkehard Bonatz, M.D., Ph.D.
Ekkehard Bonatz, M.D., was born in Wernigerode, Germany. Dr. Bonatz graduated from the Hannover Medical School with a Medical Degree. He completed his orthopaedic surgery residency at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Bonatz completed his fellowship in Hand and Microsurgery at UAB. Dr. Bonatz then volunteered for the U.S. Army as an officer in the Medical Corps at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where he was acting Chief of Hand Surgery. He then joined the faculty at the University of Alabama Department of Surgery in Birmingham in the Hand and Microsurgery Program, eventually becoming an Associate Professor, Division of Orthopaedic Surgery. Subsequently, Dr. Bonatz entered private practice at Southlake Orthopaedics Sports Medicine and Spine Center. His practice is geared primarily to elbow, wrist, and hand problems. Read More
Michael D. Smith, M.D.
Dr. Michael Smith is very excited about the opportunity to return to his hometown and practice orthopedic surgery at Southlake Orthopaedics. Both Dr. Smith and his wife love Birmingham & Hoover, and think it is a great privilege to serve in such a dynamic community. Dr. Smith believes in patient-centered care that is thoughtful and focused on the patient’s goals. As a fellowship trained hand surgeon and upper extremity surgeon, he is happy to provide treatments for ailments related to the shoulder, elbow, hand or microvascular problems.