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This injury is frequently caused by overuse of the forearm. It happens when the tendons and muscles of the forearm are strained through a strenuous or repetitive action.
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis as it is medically known, is one such condition that is caused by repetitive use of the muscles attached to the elbow. When strains occur in this area, small tears and inflammation develops on the outside of the elbow. The condition tends to affect men more than women, and it is self-limiting, which means that it usually gets better by itself within six months to two years. In 90% of cases, a full recovery is made within a year. Despite its name, only 5% of cases are caused by playing tennis. Any repetitive or strenuous movement of the elbow can cause this condition, including playing the violin, doing decorating, activities involving fine movements and manual work. An elbow support can help to protect the elbow and reduce symptoms, but in most cases invasive treatment is not needed, and surgery is rarely required.
When tennis elbow does strike, it usually affects the dominant hand, that is, the hand that you normally write with. Symptoms tend to start gradually, with pain or a dull ache occurring on the outer part of the elbow. Often, this pain will diminish, but over time it can increase for longer periods. Pain can also occur in the forearm and in the back of the hand, but may even spread to other parts of the arm, neck or shoulder. Less often, pain can develop very suddenly.
The severity of tennis elbow symptoms can vary from person to person. For some, it can produce mild discomfort when the elbow is moved or when lifting or bending. For others, it can be painful or tender even when the arm and elbow are still. It can affect a person's quality of sleep if they experience pain during the night, and stiffness of the elbow in the morning is a common feature. Some people experience pain when gripping small objects, such as a pen or when writing. Others may find it uncomfortable when twisting items, such as turning a door handle or opening a jar. Many people with this condition struggle to fully extend their forearm. Shaking hands or squeezing objects can also cause pain, as can handling utensils such as a toothbrush or even a knife and fork. People who regularly use computers or keyboards may also experience pain or tenderness associated with tennis elbow.
If the pain affects the inside of the elbow, then this is referred to as golfer's elbow. Swelling is rarely a feature, and is more likely to be associated with another condition such as arthritis. A doctor can usually make a diagnosis based on the symptoms.
It is possible to develop tennis elbow if you do any activity that repeatedly involves twisting the wrist and using the muscles of the forearm. Such activities include:
• Playing any racquet sport such as tennis, squash or badminton
• Sports that involve throwing, such as the discus or javelin
• Cutting garden plants and hedges with shears
• Painting and decorating with a paint roller or paintbrush
• Many different kinds of manual work, such as bricklaying or plumbing
• Any activity that uses small, repetitive wrist and hand movements, such as typing or using scissors
• Any other activity that involves bending the elbow repeatedly, such as playing the violin
Most elbow tendon injuries will eventually disappear without treatment but there are things you can do to minimise pain and aid recovery - especially as this can last for weeks or even months.
The first thing to do if you are suffering from tennis elbow, for example, is to stop the activity that caused the problem in the first place. You should rest your arm and invest in an elbow support that will offer compression and support to ease discomfort. It can also be helpful to spend a few minutes holding a cold compress on your elbow several times each day to ease the pain. A bag of frozen peas wrapped in a piece of cloth or towel will work well for this.
Topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be particularly effective in easing the symptom of tennis elbow. These come in gels or creams that can be applied directly to the elbow and forearm. They can also prevent the side effects that can be associated with NSAIDs in tablet form, such as diarrhoea and nausea. Some NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, are available over the counter while others require a prescription. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
You may be offered corticosteroid injections for particularly painful cases and these can ease symptoms in the short-term. They are not particularly effective as a long-term treatment option, however.
If your condition is causing persistent or severe pain, your doctor can send you to see a physiotherapist who may use manipulation and massage to ease stiffness and pain and to encourage the blood flow to the affected area. It is often recommended that a support, such as a tennis elbow support, is worn to ease symptoms further.
Arthritis Research UK have also compiled a list of exercises to help with the management of tennis elbow as well as this handy pamphlet to print off which also discusses the use of a tennis elbow brace or clasp.
This treatment involves high-energy shockwaves being passed through your skin in a bid to promote better movement and ease pain. It may be an effective form of treatment for some people but is not beneficial for everyone. It can also cause side effects such as skin reddening and bruising.
In a very small minority of cases, surgery to remove a damaged piece of tendon will be required to treat tennis elbow. This will always be a last resort and will only be offered if nothing else has worked and you are still in severe or persistent pain. An elbow support can be worn after surgery to support the area and minimise discomfort.
Painful elbows, difficulty bending or straightening your arm, problems picking up items and struggling to open jars or make other twisting motions can all have a negative impact on your life.
Often known as tennis elbow, these symptoms are caused when you overuse the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbows and wrists. Generally caused by repetitive use of these muscles - such as playing tennis, decorating, gardening or playing a musical instrument - this painful condition can sometimes be alleviated by wearing an elbow support when you need to carry out these activities.
A simple but effective treatment for tennis elbow is to wear a tennis elbow support. These apply pressure to the elbow and forearm and so ease the pain and soreness of the condition. An elbow support is adjustable, so one size will fit everyone. The band fits around the arm just below the elbow with a Velcro fastening, applying pressure and giving support to the forearm and elbow. As a result, the wearer can continue to play racquet sports and enjoy gardening or any other activity that may have caused the injury in the first place.
Wearing an elbow support works rather like using a fret on a guitar. The fret prevents the guitar string vibrating above the fret, and the support protects the injured muscle and tendon from movement generated at the wrist.
A study produced in 2009 in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy showed that wearing a tennis elbow support reduces pain and increases pain-free strength of grip immediately. Whilst wearing a band may not decrease healing time, there seems little doubt that one will provide symptomatic relief so that the wearer can continue to play tennis or other racquet sports or continue to engage in other day-to-day activities.