It is likely that we have all heard about someone who has a condition called tennis elbow. But what is it? What causes it and how can it be treated?

What is tennis elbow?

Tennis elbow (known in the medical world as lateral epicondylitis) is the inflammation of the tendons and muscles that surround the outside part of the elbow (not the inside part, that is another condition called golfers elbow). This is the recognised description of the condition, but lets put it into language that is more easily understood.

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All of the joints in the body are made moveable by the presence of tendons and muscles.

Muscles make the joint move in a certain direction by contracting and relaxing. Tendons are a strong, non-stretchy tissue that directly joins the muscle on the bone.

The non-stretchy part is important – muscle (can be) stretchy, while tendons are much less so. When a joint gets overused, after a rest the muscle will repair a little bit stronger than it was before. If a tendon gets overused it will repair but it will take much longer than muscle does. This is really important when we start talking about rest and recovery.

Inflammation around the joint

In tennis elbow – it is the constant overuse of these muscles and tendons, without sufficient recovery, that causes inflammation. Inflammation is the process in which blood and other substances rush to the site of injury (by this point the body is recognising the outside of the elbow as an injury) to aid it with healing.

what is tennis elbow_2This is fantastic, and it does aid with healing (all of the good healing stuff is carried in the blood). The only issue is that with inflammation comes swelling.

In a small joint like the elbow there isn’t anywhere for the swelling to go, so it presses on the joint, which causes pain.

As the name suggests, a lot of tennis players are prone to this condition – and it makes sense if you think about the elbow action of swinging a tennis racket. There is a lot of tension going through the elbow (in the backswing, then the impact of the tennis ball hitting the racket, then the follow through) for a lot of repetitions (think of how many times you swing a racket during a game of tennis!).

But this condition is not exclusive to tennis players

The top tennis players factor in a lot of rest, physiotherapy treatment and massage into their life so they may not be as prone (they also probably have enhanced strength in their surrounding muscles and denser tendons due to playing the sport for years and years). Anyone can get it from overusing their elbow and the muscles that surround it.

It is more prevalent when you are gripping something with your hand as well, as those muscles connect near the elbow and create a lot of tension.

So what can you think of that requires you to bend your elbow again and again and grip something at the same time? Gardening? Decorating?

The list really is massive – but they can all lead to tennis elbow.

Officially it is more prevalent in middle age (40-60 males and females), probably because a lot of people in that age range will, at some point, have more time on their hands and decide to try new leisure activities more often, leading to an acute (short term) occurrence of tennis elbow.

How can it be treated?

The good thing about tennis elbow is that for most people, it will go away as quickly as it started given that you stop whatever activity that initially caused it (diagnosing the activity may be a challenge though!).

what is tennis elbow_3The issue becomes worse when you don’t (or can’t for whatever reason) stop the activity that causes it, which will lead to a lot of discomfort and could lead to surgery if it gets too bad.

In the short term, RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) will help a lot. Basically get a bag of frozen peas and wrap it tight around your elbow.

Anti-inflammatory (such as ibuprofen) can help with the inflammation which could cause an ease in the discomfort, and paracetamol can deal directly with the pain if you feel that you need it. As with all medications, it’s probably best to have a phone call with your GP just to check you are on the right track. With tennis elbow, unless it is severely affecting your quality of life, its better to ring the doctors before you make an appointment to visit.

A visit to the physiotherapist or sports therapist to massage and manipulate the elbow could also help.

The bottom line

Tennis elbow is a niggly condition that, in most cases, will get better of its own accord one you give it some RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation). It is caused by overuse of the elbow joint, usually during an activity where you are also gripping something (but not always).

In a lot of cases it is an activity that someone hasn’t done before that often, meaning that the tendons and muscles are not conditioned for the repetitive exercise.

Anti-inflammatory medication and painkillers will help in the short term with the pain. Massage from a physiotherapist or sports therapist can also help speed up the recovery process.

If the pain persists after a week or so of resting, then it may be time to see the doctor.

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