Relieving the Pain of Tennis Elbow


Summer is prime time for tennis.  A popular sport around the world, tennis is a fun activity for both the young and old alike. Though the sport is recommended as a comfortable and practical form of exercise, it can also be dangerous to your joints.

Some of the injuries sustained from playing tennis can range from severe (including Rafael Nadal's chronic knee injuries), to mild, such as the basic soreness felt after a grueling match.   For the recreational player, there are a number of ways to prevent injury, as recommended by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.  These tips include warming up before a match, dressing appropriately and focusing on technique.  As warned in the AAOS guide, poor form can cause injury to the back or feet and can cause the commonly-known ailment called "tennis elbow."  Self-diagnosis has led some to believe that any pain in the elbow region is this condition, but this is not the case.

So what is tennis elbow?

Tennis elbow is a type of joint pain, but it is not a form of osteoarthritis.  Osteoarthritis is the breakdown of the cartilage in the joint, causing pain and inflammation.  The common joints in which osteoarthritis is experienced include the hands, back, hips, ankles and knees.  Not all joint pain is caused by this degeneration of cartilage, as is the case in tennis elbow.

Much like arthritis in the knees, for example, tennis elbow is caused by overuse of the joint.  The repeated swings of a tennis racket put pressure on the ligaments, muscles and tendons that help keep the elbow joint functional.  According to the AAOS, the term "tennis elbow" actually refers to the "inflammation of the tendons that join the forearm muscles to the outside of the elbow."

Scientifically referred to as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow appears when small tears in the aforementioned tendons appear, often from repeated swings of a racket.  In most cases, pain or burning on the outer part of the elbow or a weak grip characterize the condition.  These symptoms may begin with mild soreness and progress gradually.

If you are experiencing pain, the AAOS recommends seeing a doctor, where you can be treated in a variety of ways.  The first step is to give your joint the proper rest; let the torn tendons repair themselves.  Other non-surgical treatments include anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, a brace, steroid injections (such as cortisone) or extracorporeal shock wave therapy, where sound waves are sent to the elbow, creating "microtrauma" and initiating the natural healing process.  Surgery is also an option, though it is estimated that roughly 80 to 95 percent of patients can be treated via nonsurgical methods.

As discussed in previous posts by both Christina Lasich, MD and Daniel O'Neill, MD, when participating in exercise and sports this summer, be sure to take care of your joints