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What Is Tennis Elbow?

Tendons attach muscles to bones. The elbow has an upper arm bone (humerus) and two bones in the forearm (ulna and radius). Bony bulges on the inside and outside of the elbow are the epicondyle part of the upper bone. Tendons of forearm muscles, responsible mainly for flexing and extending the wrist, attach to these bulges.

Inflammation of the outer tendons (for extending the wrist) has the medical name lateral epicondylitis. The common name “tennis elbow” is used because the problem often results from playing tennis or similar repetitive motion. Inflammation of inner tendons (for flexing the wrist) is medial epicondylitis, or “golfer’s elbow.”

What Causes Tennis Elbow?

The usual cause is overusing the arm, often related to work or sports. Carpenters, factory workers, musicians, and cashiers, who use their hands repeatedly, can have this problem. An injury, such as from lifting something that’s too heavy, can also cause it.

What Are the Symptoms of Tennis Elbow?

The forearm becomes tender and painful. Burning feelings going down the arm from the elbow also occur. Pain may first be felt only when using the arm, but later pain may be constant, even at rest. The hand grip may be weak, and it may be hard to lift or grasp objects, or to do simple tasks (writing, brushing teeth).

How Is Tennis Elbow Diagnosed?

The health care provider makes a diagnosis by the medical history and physical examination (shoulder, arm, and wrist). Resistance against extending the wrist or flexing it can bring on pain.

The health care provider may order other tests or x-rays to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. These conditions include arthritis, cervical spine disease, neuropathy, and pinched nerve. The health care provider may also order magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to get a better view of inflamed tendons and to rule out a ruptured tendon.

How Is Tennis Elbow Treated?

Treatment involves rest and restricting activities that may have started the problem. Using ice after exercise and rest and special stretching and strengthening exercises often help. People should also lift objects with their palms facing upward to decrease stress on the elbow.

Wrapping the elbow with an elastic sleeve keeps the arm warm and helps flexibility. A physical therapist may oversee treatment and prescribe ultrasound treatment.

The health care provider may prescribe antiinflammatory medicines (ibuprofen, naproxen).

If the pain continues, cortisone injections can be tried.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Tennis Elbow:

  • DO stop the activity causing the pain for 1-2 weeks, or maybe longer, depending on your health care provider’s advice.
  • DO massage your arm as your health care provider tells you.
  • DO follow the program that your physical therapist gives you.
  • DO call your health care provider if treatment doesn’t help symptoms.
  • DO call your health care provider if you need a referral to an orthopedic surgeon (a specialist in musculoskeletal diseases).
  • DO call your health care provider if you have side effects from medicines.
  • DO take frequent breaks if your problem is work related. Get information about performing tasks safely.
  • DON’T perform any activity that involves extending or rotating the wrist.
  • DON’T apply chemical cold packs directly to your skin.
  • DON’T forget that muscles need to stay warm during sporting events. Always loosen up before activities.
  • DON’T use sporting equipment that is too large or too small.
  • DON’T overdo sports or activities.

Contact the following sources:

  • Arthritis Foundation
    Tel: (800) 283-7800
  • Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
    Tel: (847) 823-7186

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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