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Tennis Elbow: Frequently Asked Questions

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Do you feel pain in one or both elbows? If the pain persists for several days, you may be wondering what happened to your joint. "Do I have tennis elbow?" is a common question, and for good reason. Tennis elbow is a well-known name, but it's a condition that many people don't know much about.

It's best to ask a professional to develop a diagnosis and treatment plan for your joint pain. However, when describing symptoms to your doctor or seeking short-term pain relief, it may be helpful to narrow down what you think may be happening. Read these frequently asked questions and answers about tennis elbow.

What is tennis elbow?

You don't have to serve like the Williams sisters to develop tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is a condition caused by inflammation of the tendons in the elbow. It can happen to people of any age, gender or race, although it most commonly occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 50.

What Causes Tennis Elbow?

An important member of the muscle group that connects the forearm and wrist is the extensor carpi radialis brevis. It may be these muscles that are giving you pain. Trauma or repetitive motion can lead to overworked forearm muscles and swollen tendons. This strain also causes tiny tears to form in the muscles of the forearm. You may have lateral epicondylitis, also known as "tennis elbow."

You don't have to be a tennis player to develop tennis elbow, however, it is common among athletes and recreational sports players. This is because the arm movements involved in many sports can be repetitive enough to damage the muscle over an extended period of time. Baseball, racquet sports, and basketball involve perfecting the same movement over and over until it becomes almost effortless.

Certain occupations and hobbies are at higher risk for tennis elbow, including construction workers, painters and landscapers. Anyone who uses the forearm joint for repetitive motions throughout the day -- even office workers -- is at risk for tennis elbow.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow isn't always as simple as day-to-day pain. Sometimes, the pain from tennis elbow comes and goes, or it feels more like pain radiating from the elbow to the forearm and wrist. Is it painful to hold something or shake someone's hand? Tennis elbow may be the culprit.

If your elbow pain is severe, your doctor may order an X-ray to make sure your pain isn't from a bone-related disorder such as a fracture or arthritis. Once these are ruled out, your doctor will take the time to evaluate your muscles and tendons. For diagnostic purposes, you may receive an MRI or ultrasound of the area. We also offer state-of-the-art electrodiagnostic tissue testing and nerve research to best pinpoint the exact cause of elbow pain.

What is the best treatment for tennis elbow?

There is no single way to treat tennis elbow that works for everyone, but there are some accepted standards of tennis elbow care. These include:

  • Rest your elbows, wrists, fingers, and arms as often as possible. If you repeat the same activity that caused your injury without giving your body time to heal, you may injure yourself further.
  • Avoid holding things tightly with the arm in question. Remove frequently used items from high places and do not lift heavy objects during recovery.
  • For pain relief, take an NSAID, such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin.
  • Ice your elbow several times a day for about 15 minutes, with at least an hour between applications.
  • Use a heating pad on the injured elbow for a short time.
  • Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, which will involve certain stretches and movements over a period of time to promote muscle healing.
  • Your doctor may recommend injecting corticosteroids into your forearm muscles. This is a steroid medication that can relieve pain by temporarily reducing tendon inflammation.
  • Your doctor may give you or advise you to wear a brace. A brace that is often used in tennis elbow is called a reaction brace. They work by removing stress from tense muscle tissue.

Do I have to wear tennis elbow pads?

What injuries can an elbow brace help heal?

Many patients with or suspected of having tennis elbow are told to wear a brace. Most doctors recommend that you wear a brace for a few weeks to see if your symptoms improve. If they do not improve within the time period determined by your provider, you will need to discuss longer-term strategies to reduce pain and inflammation.

How long can tennis elbow last?

A professional diagnosis of tennis elbow by a doctor or sports medicine professional is one way to know how long your particular case is likely to last. Unfortunately, even for doctors, it's impossible to determine how long one tennis elbow case might last compared to another. Some people find that mild cases recover within 6-8 weeks, while more severe cases can last for months. In some cases, cases of tennis elbow that last longer than 6-12 months and do not respond to physical therapy or rest may require surgical intervention.

How do you sleep with tennis elbow?

You may experience pain, have difficulty sleeping, and wonder if you should sleep with a brace. For pain relief, take anti-inflammatory medication as appropriate, and try sleeping on your back to relieve pressure on your forearm. Use one or more pillows to support the affected arm and avoid sleeping with your arm above your head, as this may cause more pain due to blood flow to the injured area.

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