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Don’t let its name fool you – tennis elbow can cause aching arm and elbow pain regardless of whether you hit the court. In fact, it’s one of the most common elbow issues we see.
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is a tendon injury infamous for chronic pain and weakness focused on the outside of the arm, where the elbow and forearm meet. The pain often worsens with gripping or lifting motions and can radiate into the arm.
Tennis elbow is tendinosis of a forearm muscle called the extensor carpi radialis brevis. This muscle helps to move the hand away from the body at the wrist, like when swinging a racket.
Tennis elbow can happen suddenly from an injury or gradually from repetitive strain. Most often, the tendon attached to the outer elbow becomes damaged over time due to overuse. Any motion that puts a strain on the muscles and tendon at the elbow can lead to tennis elbow.
Age also influence your risk of developing tennis elbow. The older we grow, the more de-conditioned our muscles and joints become. As our muscles and tendons weaken over time, inflammation and degeneration from overuse are more likely to occur.
The goal of tennis elbow treatment is to heal the damaged tendon. Rest will almost always be the first step in the healing process.
Your doctor may use at-home exercise programs, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medicines, braces, steroid injections or extracorporeal shock wave therapy as part of your recovery.
A relatively new technology called Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injections can also promote healing from tennis elbow or similar tendon injuries. In short, PRP is a patient’s own blood enriched to stimulate healing.
PRP concentrates platelets and proteins called growth factors within a plasma layer separate from white and red blood cells. Outside of the bloodstream, platelets become activated and release proliferative and morphogenic proteins. These growth factors are known to be important for healing injuries.
Surgery is rarely needed to treat tennis elbow. Open or arthroscopic surgical options are available for pain that resists more conservative treatment methods.
Of course, the best approach is to prevent tennis elbow from happening in the first place. Small efforts can have a big impact to help reduce your risk of tennis elbow.
Tennis elbow is more prevalent than people realize and can be extremely frustrating. We are fortunate there are so many treatment options available, and we are continuing to explore new and evolving methods to treat this common elbow-pain culprit.
This article was originally published on October 22, 2018, and has been updated on August 30, 2020.