What Is Tennis Elbow? How to Recognize Causes and Symptoms

For many, a morning cup of coffee prepares you for the day. Until one morning, you pick up your coffee cup and feel a searing pain radiating from your elbow to your wrist. Leaving the coffee shop, you drop your keys. Later you experience arm and hand weakness during a handshake. You ice it and take over-the-counter medicine, but nothing works. It is time to talk to the caring experts at EmergeOrtho-Triangle Region about tennis elbow symptoms. 

Whether it is treatment with OTC medicine, physical therapy, an adjustment to your sports equipment or even surgery, the EmergeOrtho-Triangle Region medical team of 30+ orthopedic surgeons, 20+ specialty physicians, and other caring providers is ready to help you get back in the game.

Despite its name, tennis elbow symptoms affect more than your elbow. According to OrthoInfo.org, tennis elbow (also called lateral epicondylitis or lateral elbow pain) “is a painful condition of the elbow caused by overuse.” It is a type of tendinitis—swelling of the tendons—that causes pain in the elbow and arm.  

The elbow is technically a joint, and three bones come together: the humerus, the ulna and the radius. The bones each have cartilage which enables them to move. Tissue called ligaments hold the bones together. Tendons, bands of tough tissue, connect them to muscle, to allow your elbow and arm to move, move. With such complex connectivity, it is understandable when the elbow sometimes causes us tennis elbow joint pain

Learn Why Tennis Elbow Doesn’t Care If You Play Tennis

You might say, “Baseball is my game, not tennis” or “I don’t play sports at all, I’d rather knit.” Don’t be fooled by the name. While tennis playing is a culprit, many other repetitive motions can cause tennis elbow. 

Tennis elbow takes time to develop; it is not an overnight injury. Tennis elbow and associated pain is caused by repetitive muscle use. It happens when the tendons described above are stressed or overused as they support the muscles. It usually occurs because you are making repetitive motions with your hands and wrists, particularly using your thumb and two fingers. 

In addition to tennis players, others who might suffer from tennis elbow include: 

  • tennis elbow symptomsRacket-sport athletes 
  • Plumbers
  • Typists/Computer Users
  • Painters
  • Carpenters
  • Butchers
  • Cooks
  • Knitters 
  • Potentially anyone who engages in a repetitive motion using the hand

What Are the Symptoms of Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is at the root of most doctor visits where patients report elbow pain, particularly if one is age 40 or over. 

Naturally, a pain, an ache, or tenderness on the outside of the elbow is a symptom of tennis elbow. 

But sometimes, pain presents in ways that people do not describe simply as elbow pain. Knowing other signs and symptoms of tennis elbow will help you recognize when it is time to seek medical help. EMedicneHealth says to be on the lookout for: 

  1. Stiffness of the elbow with persistent aching
  2. Soreness of the forearm muscles
  3. Grasping pain or pain that is worse when holding an object 
  4. Pain that affects both arms

How Is Tennis Elbow Treated?

It is important to see your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you experience tennis elbow symptoms and self-care is not helping. Left untreated, pain can spread throughout your arm. Sometimes, loss of motion or loss of function of the elbow and forearm can develop. 

Your healthcare provider will take a medical history and ask you about what you might be doing that is causing tennis elbow pain. Perhaps you do play tennis, or maybe you use a computer at work. Learning this information will help you and your provider identify the basic cause of your pain. 

You can expect 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. If needed, X-rays or another diagnostic testing will be performed.

Often, your provider’s first recommendation probably will be to lay off using “elbow grease,” and give your elbow some TLC. With rest and proper precautions, your elbow will most likely heal on its own. 

You will be advised to: 

  • Apply ice to your elbow. The cold will help reduce pain and swelling. Typically, you ice for about 25 minutes every three to four hours for three days or until elbow pain subsides. 
  • Use a protective device such as an elbow strap to immobilize the elbow and protect the injured tendon 
  • Take 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. 
  • Get physical therapy to strengthen your muscles or practice range of motion exercises to reduce stiffness and increase flexibility (after you have rested your elbow enough to reduce the pain).

At EmergeOrtho-Triangle Region, we know elbow pain can impact your quality of life and keep you from work and play. We have 18 locations and more than 50+ physicians ready to help you be your best self. Learn more about elbow and arm care at EmergeOrtho-Triangle Region or fill out this form today for an appointment at a location near you.