You reach out to play a shot while playing tennis and suddenly feel a twinge of pain in the elbow. Or you try to lift a heavy flowerpot while gardening with the same result. This could be an indication of tennis elbow, a condition that puts several restrictions on your activity.
What is tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow is a Â condition caused by inflammation of the tendons on the lateral or outside of the elbow which is observed among people of all age groups. Â However, It most commonly affects those over the age of 40. Â The condition afflicts the elbow joint specifically the supporting tendons. It is usually seen among people who play racquet sports like tennis and hence is referred to with the sportâ€™s name; the medical term for the condition is lateral epicondylitis.
What are the causes?
Tennis elbow develops as a result of repetitive actions and overexertion. The arm and elbow used constantly to perform any manual activity for long durations results in wear and tear at the elbow joint.
The condition usually develops over a period of time but can also occur abruptly due to actions like lifting heavy objects in an incorrect position or due to an accident.
Activities like using a computer and typing for long periods cause the elbow joint to become stiff. This could lead to tennis elbow as a stiff joint is most vulnerable to muscle or tendon damage.
What are the symptoms of tennis elbow?
The exterior elbow at the spot where the upper forearm muscle attaches to the joint is more susceptible to the condition. More often than not it affects the outer elbow resulting in intermittent pain when the joint is moved. Soreness also occurs especially early in the morning making it difficult to flex or extend the arm while performing any activity.
The most common symptom of the condition is pain in the elbow joint which heightens while extending the arm or grasping any object firmly. The pain is of the throbbing kind radiating down the forearm as the condition degenerates. As itâ€™s associated with overuse it generally occurs in the dominant arm.
If any of the following symptoms are observed its best to consult a doctor
- Difficulty in lifting objects
- Elbow pain during or after any activity
- Soreness in the elbow in the morning
- Swelling in the elbow area impeding movement
Diagnosis and Treatment
Tennis elbow is somewhat difficult to diagnose as X-rays and MRI scans often do not reveal anything wrong with the joint. Persistent pain and stiffness are often the only indicators of the condition.
Treatment would encompass several aspects including medication, physiotherapy and first aid like application of ice and heat to the affected area.
- Rest is the first step in any treatment plan which helps the natural healing process to repair the damaged tendons.
- The next step would involve exercises like stretching and aerobics to help keep the joint supple and prevent muscle loss.
- A brace worn on the forearm just below the elbow would reduce the pressure on the joint due to any activity and speed up the healing process.
- If the pain increases medications like ibuprofen along with application of ice would provide relief. In case of extreme pain, cortisone injections help reduce the pain.
- Your doctor may also suggest immobilization of the forearm and elbow using a splint for 2-3 weeks.
- Surgery is an alternative used only if other methods do not give results. In case of severe tendon damage, arthroscopic elbow surgery is carried out to rebuild the damaged tendons.
How can it be prevented?
Tennis elbow can be prevented by avoiding overexertion and performing any activity whether playing a sport or any task correctly. Proper technique applied while playing any sports like tennis, squash, badminton or golf helps in preventing tendon and muscle injuries.
For example using a wider tennis racquet and hitting the tennis ball from the center of the racquet without having to reach out would help in reducing the vibrations to the forearm and elbow joint.
Similarly objects need to be lifted by bending at the knees and waist while providing leverage and support by the arms and with the wrists pointing upwards to distribute pressure evenly.
Some other ways to prevent tennis elbow are:
- Moderate daily activity especially for people who lead a sedentary lifestyle
- Avoiding intense workouts well beyond the point of exhaustion
- Use of appropriate equipment while playing any sport or exercising
- Strengthening the forearm and elbow muscles
- Use of elbow braces while playing racquet sport
- Warming up prior to any physical activity
- Undergoing massage treatment to increase joint flexibility
A few basic precautions observed will help you to avoid long term injuries that can interfere with the quality of life lived.