What is tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis or epitrochlear bursitis (see Bursitis, a pain in the… for some info on the inflammation of the bursae) is a painful irritation that can develop from repeated strain on the tendons attached to the forearm muscles on the outside of your elbow. While tennis elbow can develop in just about anyone, it’s most common for folks between 30 to 50 years of age.
First, time for a basic anatomy recap! You might recall seeing in science class or a dissection lab that muscles attach to bone by tendons and other connective tissue. In terms of tennis elbow, the primary tendons affected are the ones that attach your forearm muscles to the bone on the lateral side of your elbow. Specifically, a tiny tendon on the outside of the elbow, called the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB), works to stabilize your forearm muscles. If this tendon begins to feel strained or overused, microscopic tears can develop where the tendon and the muscle meet, also known as the lateral epicondyle. Your body, in an effort to repair the tears, will often launch an inflammatory response, which can lead to discomfort and pain.
Despite the name, most of the folks who develop tennis elbow aren’t actually tennis players. So, if it's not most common in tennis phenoms, then who’s really at risk for developing tennis elbow? Professionals such as butchers and cooks, mechanics, electricians, plumbers, farmers, harvesters, and painters are the ones who need to keep an eye on their arms. Furthermore, the National Institutes of Health has suggested that repetitive or constant computer or mouse use could lead or contribute to epicondylitis. However, it’s also possible for tennis elbow to develop for no apparent reason.
If you have pain in your elbow at certain movements, notice that your grasp is weakening, as well as more general pain while applying pressure to the outside of your elbow, it may be time to see a health care provider to check if you have tennis elbow. All is not lost, however, as there are several roads one can take towards recovery from tennis elbow, which may include:
- Rebuilding your strength through physical therapy and eccentric exercise to gently stretch the muscles and tendons and help you regain your range of motion
- Using over-the-counter pain reliever such as naproxen, aspirin, or ibuprofen
- Icing the area
- Resting the elbow for two to three weeks (depending on what a health care provider suggests)
- Wearing a brace
- Getting shock wave therapy, which are sound waves sent into the elbow (considered experimental by some health care providers)
Additionally, in more extreme or experimental cases, you could receive a cortisone injection into your elbow to decrease the pain, or your health care provider could recommend surgery to help repair the tendon and muscle attachment site.
But since — as they say — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, you may want to keep these tennis elbow prevention tips tucked in the back of your mind:
- Adjust any machinery or sporting equipment that you're using to fit your body ability, size, and muscle strength.
- When working or on the court, focus on proper technique: keep an eye on your movements and form (or have a coach or supervisor check your form) to make sure your movements won’t lead to injury.
- Strengthen the muscles in your forearm, back, and upper arm.
- Decrease the pressure or use of your elbow if you begin to feel discomfort and try utilizing the muscles in your shoulder more, if you can.
- If you feel that your work environment could lead to injury, in the US, you're protected under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). For more information about contributing to a health and risk-free workplace, check out the OSHA website. They even list ergonomic principles and ergonomic solutions that can help you find ways to decrease the strain and physical stress of your job.
Hopefully this info serves you well!
Originally published Jun 01, 2001
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