Tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is a condition that causes pain around the outside of the elbow. It often occurs after strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint. See your GP if the pain in your elbow persists, despite resting it for a few days.

Symptoms of tennis elbow

Tennis elbow causes pain and tenderness on the outside of your elbow. You may also have pain in your forearm and in the back of your hand.

The pain of tennis elbow can range from mild discomfort while using your elbow, to severe pain that can be felt when your elbow is still.

The pain is often worse when you use your arm, particularly for twisting movements. Repetitive wrist movements, such as extending your wrist and gripping, can also make the pain worse.

If you have tennis elbow, you will usually experience:

  • pain on the outside of your upper forearm, just below your elbow – the pain may also travel down your forearm towards your wrist 
  • pain when lifting or bending your arm
  • pain when writing or gripping small objects – for example, when holding a pen
  • pain when twisting your forearm – for example, when turning a door handle or opening a jar
  • pain and stiffness when fully extending your arm

An episode of tennis elbow will usually last between six months and two years. Most people (between 80 and 90 per cent) will make a full recovery within a year.

Causes of tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is usually caused by overusing the muscles attached to your elbow and used to straighten your wrist.

As the name suggests, tennis elbow is sometimes caused by playing tennis. It is often also caused by other activities that place repeated stress on the elbow joint, such as decorating or playing the violin.

Pain that occurs on the inner side of the elbow is often known as golfer's elbow.

When to see your GP

If your elbow pain is caused by a strenuous or repetitive activity, you should avoid the activity until your symptoms improve. 

You should see your GP if the pain in your elbow persists, despite resting it for a few days. 

They will check for swelling and tenderness. They will also usually carry out some simple tests, such as asking you to extend your fingers and flex your wrist with your elbow extended.

Further tests, such as an ultrasound scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will only be needed if it is thought that your pain is being caused by nerve damage.

Treating tennis elbow

Tennis elbow will eventually get better without treatment.

There are treatments that can be used to improve your symptoms and speed up your recovery.

It's important that you rest your injured arm and stop doing the activity that's causing the problem.

Holding a cold compress, such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel, against your elbow for a few minutes several times a day can help ease the pain.

Taking painkillers, such as paracetamol, may help reduce mild pain caused by tennis elbow. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can also be used to help reduce inflammation.

Physiotherapy may be recommended in more severe and persistent cases. Massaging and manipulating the affected area may help relieve the pain and stiffness. This can help improve the range of movement in your arm.

Surgery may be used as a last resort to remove the damaged part of the tendon.

Preventing tennis elbow

It's not always easy to avoid getting tennis elbow.  By not putting too much stress on the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbow will help prevent the condition getting worse.

If your tennis elbow is caused by an activity that involves placing repeated strain on your elbow joint, such as tennis, changing your technique may help relieve the problem.

People commonly affected by tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is a common condition and is the most common cause of persistent elbow pain. It's estimated that as many as between one and three people in every hundred have tennis elbow at any given time.

The condition usually affects adults and is more common in people who are 35-54 years of age. Men and women are equally affected.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

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