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Treating Tennis Elbow

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Tennis elbow, more formally called lateral epicondylitis, is an inflammation of the tendons connected to the forearm muscles. It is typically caused by overuse of the forearm and is thus extremely common in patients who play racquet sports. Anybody who repetitively uses their forearms a lot can develop tennis elbow, so it is also common in carpenters, painters, mechanics, and assembly-line workers. The condition is more common in men than in women, and most patients with it are between 30 and 50 years old.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of tennis elbow is a pain or burning sensation on the outer part of the elbow. The pain is mild at first but gradually becomes more severe over time. Using the forearm in actions like shaking hands or holding a racket can make the pain worse.

Tennis elbow can also weaken the strength of the patient’s grip. In most cases, the patient’s dominant arm is affected, but tennis elbow can affect both arms.

How is tennis elbow diagnosed?

The doctor will start by taking a medical history, during which they will ask about the patient’s occupation and recreational activities. They will ask about what actions trigger the pain.

The doctor will perform a physical exam during which they conduct a series of tests to determine how well the muscles and tendons in the forearm are working and what actions cause pain. For example, the doctor may ask the patient to try to straighten their wrist against resistance. The doctor may also order tests to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. For example, they might order an X-ray to rule out arthritis, or they might order an electromyography (EMG) to rule out a compressed nerve.

How is tennis elbow treated?

About 80 to 95 percent of the cases of tennis elbow can be treated through non-surgical means. The doctor might recommend surgery only after six to twelve months of unsuccessful non-surgical treatment.

The first treatment the doctor will probably recommend is rest. The patient will be told to avoid the activities like sports that caused the inflammation for several weeks. If the patient is an athlete, the doctor may want to examine their equipment to help them choose gear that will put less stress on their forearm. The doctor may also recommend over-the-counter medications like aspirin to reduce swelling and pain. They may also prescribe steroid injections to relieve the symptoms.

Physical therapy may be an option as well. The therapist will teach the patient exercises to strengthen the muscles in their forearm.