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What can happen if I don’t treat tennis elbow properly?

Despite the name, tennis elbow is not necessarily a sport-related injury. Instead, it’s something many people suffer from, approximately 3 in every 100, especially as they get older. Thankfully, most cases of tennis elbow can be treated through self-care using something like an elbow strap or an elbow brace, though it can take a long time to heal.

What is tennis elbow?

Tennis elbow is the result of tearing and swelling in the tendons that connect your forearm to your elbow, making the area tender and causing localised pain. You can suffer from tennis elbow in either arm, but the one you use most frequently is the one most likely to be affected. Symptoms can last from a few weeks to several years, depending on the severity. An elbow brace applies pressure to the tendons in your elbow to prevent them sliding over the bone and causing pain.

What causes tennis elbow?

Tennis elbow occurs when the tendons and muscles in your forearm and elbow become damaged through repeated motion. While tennis is one of the causes, any form of repetitive tasks can lead to tennis elbow, including jobs such as plumbing and carpentry and hobbies such as sewing or knitting.

People with poor muscle strength or prior injuries are more likely to be affected, as are those who start exercising after a long period of inactivity. Unfortunately, once you’ve had tennis elbow, you’re at increased risk of a recurrence.

How to tell if you have tennis elbow

When you have tennis elbow, you will likely feel pain and tenderness in the muscles of your forearm and the outer side of your elbow. You shouldn’t feel pain in your hands, fingers or upper arms. The intensity of the pain may increase over time, so you may not be aware you are suffering from tennis elbow at first, making it hard to link them to a specific activity.

As well as pain and tenderness, you may notice that you find carrying out everyday tasks such as holding a mug or lifting heavy objects more difficult, because your grip has been weakened or your joints are stiff.

How to treat a tennis elbow at home

Most cases of tennis elbow can be treated at home without having to visit your GP by:

  • Resting the elbow for a few days, avoiding the activities which caused the injury
  • Changing the way you carry out tasks, working with your employer if the injury is impacting your work
  • Taking regular breaks when you have to carry out repetitive tasks, e.g. because of your job
  • Avoiding lifting heavy objects wherever possible
  • Using cold compresses or heat packs on the affected area
  • Wearing a specialist brace or support to reduce pressure on the injury. These don’t necessarily need to be worn at all times, just when you are carrying out tasks that might lead to further damage to tendons
  • Taking over the counter pain relief, such as ibuprofen, which can be used as a tablet, gel or cream.

If you do have tennis elbow and you don’t take care of it by resting the injury and using appropriate braces, for example, it could get worse and will definitely take longer to heal.

When to contact your GP

If the pain hasn’t gone within four weeks or is severe and leads to loss or movement or feeling in your elbow, you should contact your GP immediately.

Can you prevent tennis elbow?

If you have had tennis elbow and you want to avoid a recurrence or you feel you may be at risk because of the sports you play or the job you do, there are steps you can take to protect your elbow including:

  • Reducing or changing the number of repetitive activities you carry out
  • Taking regular breaks when you are carrying out repetitive movements
  • Carrying heavy objects with your palms up
  • Using the correct techniques and equipment when playing sport, taking lessons if you need to
  • Wearing sports braces and straps to protect your elbow while playing sport
  • Carrying out exercises given to you by your doctor or physiotherapist to maintain your elbow’s strength and flexibility.

For more information on how to prevent tennis elbow, visit the NHS website.