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What Causes Tennis Elbow? It's Not Always What You Think

Triangle Region / 31 May 2022

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by EmergeOrtho
What Causes Tennis Elbow? It's Not Always What You Think

It might happen on the tennis court. It could happen when you pick up your morning cup of coffee. Either way, the feeling is the same: A searing pain radiating down your arm from your elbow to your wrist, accompanied by weakness that makes even basic activities difficult.

If you aren’t an athlete, the possibility that you have tennis elbow might seem unlikely. However, the pain and weakness you are experiencing are common tennis elbow symptoms — and a sign that it’s time to see a doctor.

The board-certified orthopedic surgeons at EmergeOrtho—Triangle Region are experienced in treating tennis elbow, a type of tendinitis. Also known as lateral epicondylitis or lateral elbow pain, the condition affects more than just your elbow. The swollen tendons can make even simple daily activities painful or even impossible. Fortunately, there are treatment options that can eliminate the pain, and help you Emerge Stronger. Healthier. Better.

What is Tennis Elbow?

The elbow is a complex joint where the three arm bones (the humerus, the ulna, and the radius) come together. These bones are held together by ligaments, which are in turn connected to the arm muscles by tendons —bands of tough connective tissue that allow you to move your arm.

Man hits the ball while playing tennis.

Despite their toughness and resilience, tendons can become irritated by repetitive motion. Over time, repeating the same movements —like swinging a tennis racket— can cause them to become swollen and irritated, a condition called tendinitis.

Tennis Elbow Doesn’t Care If You Play Tennis

While you might think you are immune to tennis elbow if you don’t play the game, the fact is that even nonathletes can develop the condition. It is certainly common for tennis players to develop this form of tendinitis, but any other activity that requires repetitive motion can cause tennis elbow.

For example, the following activities can lead to tennis elbow symptoms:

  • Racket sports, including squash and racquetball
  • Plumbing work, which involves a lot of twisting motion
  • Typing
  • Painting
  • Carpentry
  • Cooking
  • Knitting

Essentially, any activity that requires repetitive hand motions can cause tennis elbow.

That does not mean that you are going to develop tennis elbow symptoms after simply cooking a meal or painting the living room. Tennis elbow does not occur overnight, but rather takes time to develop. The swollen, irritated tendons and associated pain are caused by repetitive motions that stress the elbow tendons that support the arm muscles.

What Are the Most Common Tennis Elbow Symptoms?

In many cases, patients who complain of elbow pain to their doctors — especially people over age 40 — are diagnosed with tennis elbow. The most common type of pain reported is an ache or tenderness on the outside of the elbow.

However, tennis elbow symptoms extend beyond elbow pain. Other common complaints include:

  • Persistent aching in the elbow
  • Stiffness in the elbow joint
  • Sore forearm muscles
  • Pain that worsens when grasping or holding an object
  • Pain in both arms

Any of these symptoms should be discussed with a medical provider to determine the best individualized treatment plan.

Treating Tennis Elbow

While self-care can help alleviate the discomfort of tennis elbow symptoms, ongoing pain that disrupts normal activity warrants a visit to an orthopedic specialist. Left untreated, tennis elbow can potentially cause increasing pain that spreads throughout your arm, limit the range of motion in the arm, and even cause the elbow and forearm to lose function.

During an appointment with an orthopedist, you can expect:

  • A full medical history.
  • Questions about your pain, including when it occurs, its severity, and what you have been doing to treat the pain.
  • A physical exam, during which your healthcare provider will examine your elbow, other joints, nerves, muscles, bones, and skin to assess your pain and injury.
  • Diagnostic imaging tests, if needed.

The doctor’s findings will inform treatment. EmergeOrtho providers typically begin with conservative treatment, so in addition to recommending rest, the doctor may advise

  • Applying ice to your elbow for 25 minutes every 3-4 hours for several days to help reduce pain and swelling.
  • Using a protective device such as an elbow strap to immobilize the elbow and protect the injured tendon.
  • Taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medicine such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin for pain and swelling. However, it is important that your healthcare provider be aware of all other medicines you are taking. He/She should also discuss the side effects of NSAID medications with you.
  • Attending physical therapy to learn and practice exercises to strengthen your muscles, improve range of motion, and increase flexibility.

If these conservative measures do not improve tennis elbow symptoms, your doctor may recommend further treatment. Options include shockwave therapy, which uses shockwaves to break up calcium deposits in the tendons, or corticosteroid injections.

Treating Tennis Elbow At EmergeOrtho

At EmergeOrtho-Triangle Region, we understand how elbow pain can impact your quality of life and keep you from doing the things you love. Our team of providers is committed to providing the most advanced, highest-quality care to eliminate your pain and get you back on the tennis court — or wherever you want to be.

If you are experiencing tennis elbow symptoms or any other unusual pain, self-schedule an appointment now. Or, call us any time at (919) 220-5255.

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