This factsheet is for people who have tennis elbow, or who would like information about it.
Tennis elbow is the common name for a condition that causes pain around the outside part of the elbow.
About tennis elbow
The medical term for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis or common extensor tendinopathy because it often affects the outside of your elbow bone, called the lateral epicondyle. You can feel this bony area on the outside of your elbow.
Tennis elbow may develop when the tendon that joins the muscles of your forearm to your upper arm (the humerus) becomes damaged and painful. The tendon is called the common extensor tendon (see diagram).
Tennis elbow is a common condition that affects between one and three in 100 people. Anybody can get tennis elbow but it's most common in people aged between 40 and 60. Depending on the severity, tennis elbow can last between six weeks and two years.
Tennis elbow is most often caused by repeatedly overusing the muscles in your arm or by minor injury. It often gets worse if you continue doing the activity that causes your pain.
Symptoms of tennis elbow
The most common symptom is pain and tenderness on the outside of your elbow and in the muscles of your forearm. Your symptoms will often develop gradually over time and your pain may become constant.
You may feel pain when you:
- grip something, for example holding a pen or shaking someone's hand
- twist your forearm, for example turning a door handle
- use your keyboard or mouse
- fully lengthen (extend) your arm
Many people with mild symptoms of tennis elbow find that their pain eases with rest and self-help treatments. However, if your symptoms don't improve after a couple of weeks, see your DOCTOR or physiotherapist (a health professional who specialises in maintaining and improving movement and mobility) for advice.
If you have severe elbow pain, can't move your elbow joint or have any loss of feeling, you should seek urgent medical attention.
Causes of tennis elbow
Playing racquet sports, such as tennis or badminton, can cause tennis elbow. However, most people who get tennis elbow don't play tennis. The most common cause of tennis elbow is repeated overuse of your arm.
A range of different activities that involve repeated hand, wrist and forearm movements can also cause tennis elbow. Examples of these include:
- using a screwdriver
- sewing or knitting
- using a keyboard and mouse
You may also get tennis elbow if the muscles in your shoulder are weak, which places more stress on the muscles around your elbow and wrist.
Rarely, you can damage your tendon after a single and often minor incident, such as lifting something heavy or taking part in an activity that you don't do very often. These activities can cause small tears in your tendon.
Diagnosis of tennis elbow
You don't usually need to see your DOCTOR if you think you have tennis elbow. However, if your symptoms get worse and aren't helped by self-help measures and simple painkillers, see your DOCTOR or physiotherapist for advice.
Your DOCTOR or physiotherapist will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. He or she can usually diagnose tennis elbow from examining your arm and finding out how your symptoms developed. Further tests are rarely needed, however your DOCTOR or physiotherapist may recommend having an X-ray to rule out other conditions, such as arthritis, that can cause elbow pain.
If you have severe tennis elbow that hasn't got better with normal treatment, your DOCTOR or physiotherapist may recommend an ultrasound scan. An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your arm.
Treatment of tennis elbow
To make a full recovery, you will need to change the way you use your arm so that your tendon can rest and has time to heal. How you do this will depend on how you developed tennis elbow and how severe it is.
You can treat your symptoms yourself if you have mild tennis elbow. Some of the main self-help treatments are described below.
- Rest. The most important part of your treatment is to rest your injured tendon by stopping or changing the activity that is causing your pain.
- Apply a cold compress to help ease your pain. You can apply a cold compress, such as an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel as soon as you feel any pain. Hold this against your elbow for 10 minutes every two hours. Don't apply ice directly to your skin as it can damage your skin.
- Wear a strap, splint or brace. You may want to try wearing a strap or brace around your forearm and elbow to help relieve the strain through your tendon. Some people may find this helps, but there is no evidence to show how well straps or splints work. You can buy arm braces and supports from some physiotherapists, pharmacies and sports shops. Don't wear a strap or splint continuously – you should leave it off at night.
- Change the activity that caused the problem. If the problem has developed as a result of an activity at work, speak with your employer. They can give you advice on how to change the activity that caused the problem, allowing your arm to heal.
If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers (also known as NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen, are available as a cream or gel that you can put directly on your skin, or you can take them as a tablet.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
Your DOCTOR may refer you to a physiotherapist if he or she thinks physiotherapy will help to treat your tennis elbow. Your physiotherapist may try various techniques to reduce your pain. These may include exercises, deep tissue massage and acupuncture.
Your physiotherapist may give you a programme of exercises to do that stretches your muscles and that improves the movement and strength of your elbow and wrist. He or she will be able to advise you on this.
You may be given advice about your posture and ways to change an activity that may be causing your symptoms.
Acupuncture is commonly used to treat tennis elbow, and may help to relieve your symptoms, but there is conflicting evidence to show its effectiveness . Speak to your DOCTOR or physiotherapist before trying acupuncture. If you decide to try it, check that your therapist belongs to a recognised professional body.
If over-the-counter painkillers and other treatments don't ease your pain, your DOCTOR may suggest a steroid joint injection (also known as a corticosteroid injection). A medicine that contains steroids (a type of hormone) is injected into the painful area of your arm. You may be given the steroid joint injection with local anaesthesia. This completely blocks pain from the area and you will stay awake during the procedure. Most people find steroid joint injections ease their pain initially, however they're often not effective over a long period of time. For this reason steroid joint injections are usually used as a last resort.
Extracorporeal shockwave therapy passes high-energy shockwaves through the skin of the painful area to relieve pain. Research has shown that shockwave treatment is safe but its effectiveness is unknown and further research is needed. This treatment is often only used if other treatments have not worked for you. Speak to your physiotherapist for advice
It is rare, but if you have severe tennis elbow that has been causing you problems for many months, you may have surgery. This aims to repair the damaged part of your tendon.
Prevention of tennis elbow
Tennis elbow is usually caused by overuse of your arm, so it can be prevented. A few sensible precautions include:
- warming-up before activity with five minutes of gentle movements – this allows time for your muscles to adjust to the extra stresses and strains
- trying not to do the same activity for long periods of time – take regular breaks
- seeking advice early from your DOCTOR or physiotherapist if you notice a problem
- stopping the activity that's causing the problem or find a different way to do it
To prevent a previous tennis elbow injury from coming back, you should:
- rest between sessions
- not play sport if your arm is painful
- get professional advice on your technique and the equipment you're using if you play racquet sports regularly
- perform exercises to strengthen the tendon in your arm, as advised by your physiotherapist