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What is Tennis Elbow?

By R. Kayne
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is a painful condition that affects the outside or lateral side of the elbow and can cause pain even when gripping or carrying a very light object, like a coffee cup. About half of all tennis players will experience this condition at some point in their lives, but they only account for about 5% of all those who suffer from it, as the condition can be brought on by many activities.

Many people confuse tennis elbow with two other painful conditions: golfer's elbow or medial epicondylitis, and bursitis. Golfer's elbow is brought about by the same types of activities, but the pain is primarily felt on the inside of the elbow rather than the outside. The pain of bursitis is at the back of the elbow.

Tennis elbow will typically cause recurring pain at the outside top of the forearm just below the elbow, and the pain may radiate down the arm. Bending, lifting, or straightening the arm will also cause pain due to inflamed muscles and tendons. Typical bouts last six to 12 weeks, but it can also last shorter or longer periods of time.

Small tears in the tendons and muscles are what causes this pain. Tendons anchor muscles to bone, and when they tear, it takes much longer to heal than muscle tissue because tendons receive less blood and oxygen. Once tendons and muscles are injured, the site is always vulnerable to re-tearing. Further injury can lead to hemorrhaging and calcium deposits in the tissues. A protein called collagen can also create inflammation that can press on the radial nerve that controls muscles in the arm and hand.

Because tennis elbow is associated with injury to the tendon, it is often referred to as tendinitis; however, if the bone itself feels sore and muscles are involved, it is epicondylitis. Although this condition involves inflammation of the tissues at the injury site, it does not cause swelling of the arm, which could be indicative of arthritis, gout, or even infection.

The recommended treatment is to stop whatever activities have caused the inflammation and to allow the arm to rest until all pain has ceased. At that point, massage and exercise may be of value to strengthen the arm against further injury. Slow gentle stretching of the arm for 10 to 15 minutes before engaging in any activity is also recommended.

In special cases, a medical professional may suggest anti-inflammatory creams, injections, or even surgery to treat this problem. Surgery is a last resort suggested to less than 3% of patients, however. In this case, tears in the tendon may be repaired or the tendon may be cut free of the bone to release the stress, though this is rarely chosen as it leaves the tendon useless.

To prevent tennis elbow from recurring, experts suggest modifying the activity that caused it, stretching or warming up the arm, exercising the arm to build muscle strength, and resting the arm between activities. People who are experiencing persistent pain in the elbow or arm should see a medical professional in order to have the problem professionally diagnosed and treated.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By lisahultz — On Aug 19, 2007

I have been diagnosed with Tennis Elbow (Left Arm). I have undergone two surgeries. One on the inside and the other on the outside of my elbow. The surgeries were to repair the tendons. I am still experiencing pain (even more so than before the surgeries). Since the last surgery 4 months ago, I now have pain up into my shoulder and neck and my 2nd and 3rd toes and the area below my toes on the sole of my right foot go numb on occasion. Is this associated with the tennis elbow or could my doctor be missing some other cause for this pain?

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