Tennis Elbow - What Is It & How Is It Treated?

Tennis elbow is an inflammation around the bony knob on the outer side of the elbow. It occurs when the tissue that attaches muscle to the bone becomes irritated. The bony knob is called the lateral epicondyle, and tennis elbow is also called lateral epicondylitis.

Playing a racket sport can cause tennis elbow. So can doing anything that involves extending your wrist or rotating your forearm - such as twisting a screwdriver or lifting heavy objects with your palm down. With age, the tissue may become inflamed more easily.

The most common symptom of tennis elbow is pain on the outer side of the elbow and down the forearm. You may have pain all the time or only when you lift things. The elbow may also swell, get red, or feel warm to the touch. And it may hurt to grip things, turn your hand, or swing your arm.

Understanding your elbow problem
The muscles that allow you to straighten your fingers and rotate your lower arm and wrist are called the extensor muscles. These muscles extend from the outer side of your elbow to your wrist and fingers. A cordlike fiber called a tendon attaches the extensor muscles to the elbow. Overuse or an accident can cause tissue in the tendon to become inflamed or injured.

When the tendon is inflamed
When the tendon is inflamed, the nerves around the tendon become irritated. Then moving your elbow is painful. Turning your hand or grasping objects can also be painful.

Diagnosing tennis elbow
Your doctor can usually diagnose tennis elbow from your symptoms and from the look and feel of your elbow. He or she may order an x-ray to be sure the bone is not diseased or fractured. In some cases, other tests may be needed.

Treating tennis elbow
Your treatment will depend on how inflamed your tendon is. The goal is to relieve your symptoms and help you regain full use of your elbow.

Rest and medication
Wearing a tennis elbow splint allows the inflamed tendon to rest, so it can heal. Using your other hand or changing your grip also helps take stress off the tendon. Oral anti-inflammatory medications and heat or ice can relieve pain and reduce swelling.

Exercises and therapy
Your doctor may give you an exercise program, or refer you to a therapist, to gently stretch and then strengthen the muscles around your elbow.

Anti-inflammatory injections
Your doctor may give you injections of an anti-inflammatory, such as Cortisone, to help reduce the swelling. You may have more pain at first, but in a few days your elbow should feel better.

If your symptoms persist for a long time, or other treatments don't relieve them, your doctor may recommend surgery to repair the inflamed tendon.