Tennis Elbow: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you feel pain in one or both elbows? If the pain persists over several days, you might be wondering what’s going on with your joints. “Do I have tennis elbow?” is a common inquiry, and for good reason. Tennis elbow is a well-known name, but it’s a condition many people don’t know very much about.

It is always best to see a professional for a diagnosis and treatment plan for your joint pain. However, narrowing down what you think might be going on could prove helpful when describing symptoms to your doctor or searching for short-term pain relief. Read up on these common questions and answers about tennis elbow.

What Is Tennis Elbow?

You don’t have to serve like the Williams sisters to develop a case of tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is a condition caused by inflammation in the tendons of your elbow. It can happen to people of any age, gender, or ethnicity, although it is most common in people between ages 30 to 50.

What Causes Tennis Elbow?

An important member of the group of muscles that connects your forearm and your wrist is the extensor carpi radialis brevis. It may be these muscles that are causing you pain. Trauma or repetitive motion can cause excess strain on the muscles in your forearm and swelling of the tendons. The strain can also cause tiny tears to form in your forearm muscle. You may have a case of lateral epicondylitis, aka “tennis elbow”. 

You don’t have to be a tennis player to develop tennis elbow, however, it is widespread among athletes and recreational sports players. This is because the arm movement involved in many sports can be repetitive enough to damage muscles over a long period of time. Baseball, racquet sports, and basketball involve perfecting the same motion over and over again until it becomes almost effortless. 

Certain professions and hobbies are at a higher risk for tennis elbow, including construction workers, painters, and landscapers. Anyone who uses their forearm joints in repetitive motions all day— even office workers— is at risk for developing tennis elbow.

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow isn’t always as straightforward as the same pain day in and day out. Sometimes, pain from tennis elbow ebbs and flows, or feels more like a pain radiating from the elbow further out to the forearm and wrists. Is gripping something tightly or shaking hands with someone painful? Tennis elbow could be a culprit. 

If your elbow pain is severe, your doctor might order X-rays to make sure your pain isn’t coming from a broken bone or a bone-related condition such as arthritis. Once those are ruled out, your doctor will spend time assessing your muscles and tendons. You might receive an MRI or ultrasound of the area for diagnostic purposes. We also offer state-of-the-art electrodiagnostic tissue tests and nerve studies to best pinpoint what exactly is causing your elbow pain. 

What’s the Best Treatment for Tennis Elbow?

There is no single way to treat tennis elbow that will suit everyone, but there are some agreed-upon standards of care for tennis elbow. These include:

  • Rest your elbow, wrist, fingers, and arm as much as you can. You can injure yourself further if you return to doing the same activities that caused your injury without giving your body time to heal.
  • Avoid firmly gripping things using your problem arm. Move frequently used items from high places and do not lift heavy objects while you are recovering.
  • For pain relief, take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin.
  • Ice your elbow a few times per day for about 15 minutes with at least one hour between applications. 
  • Apply a heating pad for short periods to the afflicted elbow.
  • Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, which will involve certain stretches and movements that promote muscle healing over a period of time.
  • Your doctor may offer to inject a corticosteroid shot into your forearm muscle. This is a steroid medication that can provide pain relief by temporarily decreasing inflammation in your tendons.
  • Your doctor may provide you with or recommend you a brace to wear. The braces often used in cases of tennis elbow are called counterforce braces. They work by taking pressure away from strained muscle tissue.

Do I Have to Wear a Tennis Elbow Brace?

Many patients who have or suspect they have tennis elbow are told to wear a brace. Most doctors recommend you wear the brace for several weeks to see if your symptoms improve. If they do not improve over the period of time determined by your provider, you will need to discuss more long-term strategies for reducing pain and inflammation.

How Long Does Tennis Elbow Last?

Having tennis elbow diagnosed professionally by a doctor or sports medicine professional is one way to get an idea of how long your particular case might last. Unfortunately, even for doctors, there’s no way to determine how long one case of tennis elbow might last compared to another. Some people find that mild cases clear up in 6-8 weeks, whereas more serious cases can last for several months. In some cases, a case of tennis elbow that lasts longer than 6-12 months and does not respond to physical therapy or rest may require surgical intervention.

How Do You Sleep With Tennis Elbow?

You may have pain that makes it difficult to fall asleep and wonder if you should wear your brace to bed. For pain relief, take anti-inflammatories as appropriate and try sleeping on your back to take pressure away from your forearm. Use a pillow or several pillows to support the affected arm and avoid sleeping with your arms above your head, as this can cause more pain due to bloodflow to and from the injury.

Have other questions? Wondering what else might be causing your elbow pain? Check out the difference between tennis elbow and golf elbow.

Looking for an elbow specialist in PA or NJ? With 16 offices in the Philadelphia region and Southern New Jersey, Philadelphia Hand to Shoulder Center will help get you the care you need to return to your everyday life, pain free. Call 1-800-385-7472 to schedule an appointment with one of our 18 orthopaedic experts.

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