While it’s common to experience some soreness or pain after a long workout, sometimes that discomfort might be a sign of a more serious issue. If your job requires a lot of repetitive motions or you play a sport like tennis or racquetball, the pain in your elbow and forearm might be a condition called tennis elbow.
Tennis elbow occurs when the tendons and muscles in your elbow become inflamed, usually due to physical stress caused by repetitive motions. It’s common in tennis players, as the name suggests, but tennis elbow can also occur in painters, mechanics, plumbers, or anyone who does a lot of the same arm movements over and over.
Dr. Richard Gray, an orthopedic surgeon at Florida Medical Clinic, specializes in treating conditions like tennis elbow. He describes the symptoms to look out for, how this condition is diagnosed, and different tennis elbow treatment options.
What are the symptoms of tennis elbow?
The most common symptom is pain along the outside part of the elbow. The pain often radiates down into your forearm and even your wrist. Some other common symptoms include:
- Weakness or instability (especially when gripping or holding objects)
- Pain that’s worse at night
- Pain that gets worse when you use or bend your arm
- A burning sensation along the outside of the elbow
Tennis elbow can share symptoms with other common muscle strains and injuries, so it’s important to see a doctor if your symptoms don’t go away with a few days of rest, get worse over time, or keep you from doing daily tasks or participating in sports.
Causes & Risk Factors
Tennis elbow is caused by microscopic tears in the tendon that extends into the forearm. This tendon is called the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) and is what allows you to rotate your forearm, flex your fingers, and keep your wrist stable.
When you overuse your ECRB, it can become irritated and develop tiny tears that lead to inflammation, pain, and weakness.
Some common risk factors associated with tennis elbow are:
- Being an athlete, especially in racket sports, golf, bowling, or baseball
- Working in a very physical occupation, such as auto work, plumbing, painting, carpentry, etc.
- Using a computer mouse for long periods of time (also called “mouse elbow”)
- Using improper technique when working or using sports equipment
- Being between 30 and 50 years old (though anyone may develop tennis elbow, regardless of age)
Even if you don’t match these risk factors, Dr. Gray emphasizes that it’s important to see a doctor if you experience arm pain that doesn’t go away. It’s still possible that you’ve developed tennis elbow, or you may have another condition that’s causing you pain.
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How is tennis elbow diagnosed?
Your doctor will start by asking you about your symptoms, your medical history, and your occupation. Your doctor may also perform a physical exam, which involves moving your arm in certain ways while applying resistance to your fingers and wrist.
Tennis elbow can’t be diagnosed through imaging tests like x-rays or MRIs, but your doctor might recommend you receive one of these tests to check for other conditions that could be causing pain, like osteoarthritis or nerve compression.
Tennis Elbow Treatment Options
There are several different options for treating tennis elbow and managing pain. Some patients find that a combination of treatments works best.
- Rest. Don’t participate in sports or other activities that require you to bend and strain your elbow. If you work in a physical profession, try taking sick leave or talking with your employer about temporarily switching to less strenuous work tasks. Try to rest your arm for at least a week.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers. Taking OTC medications that contain acetaminophen (Tylenol) or NSAIDs (ibuprofen) can help with pain and inflammation. Don’t take both acetaminophen and NSAIDs at the same time, though, and be sure to follow the dosage instructions on the label.
- Steroid injections. If OTC pain medication isn’t enough, your orthopedic surgeon might recommend injections to help reduce symptoms.
- Physical therapy. A physical therapist can help you strengthen the muscles in your forearm and show you how to perform stretches and exercises that relieve pain. They may also show you how to wear a brace to stabilize your arm.
- Surgery. Sometimes, surgery may be the only way to find symptom relief in very severe cases. An orthopedic surgeon will remove damaged tissue and reattach muscle. Surgery is effective but does require a significant period of rest and physical rehab afterward.
Some orthopedic surgeons, like Dr. Gray, specialize in arthroscopic surgery, which involves making a tiny incision and using small instruments to perform a procedure. Arthroscopic techniques help reduce healing time and the risk of complications.
How an Orthopedic Doctor Can Help
For most patients, tennis elbow is easy to treat. But to get back to work, sports, or your favorite activities, it’s important to diagnose and start treatment right away. Ignoring your symptoms or continuing to put strain on your arm will only make your condition worse—and make it more difficult to treat down the road.
An orthopedic doctor can help create a treatment plan customized to your unique condition.If you’re ready to get back to daily activities and find a solution for your pain, schedule an appointment with Dr. Gray at a Florida Medical Clinic location in North Tampa, Wiregrass, or Zephyrhills, Florida. Telemedicine services are also available.
About Richard Gray, MD
Board-certified orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard Gray specializes in performing minimally invasive procedures designed to get patients back on the court, on their feet, or on the job as quickly as possible.
After completing his education at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Gray provided medical care to the Philadelphia Flyers and now works as a consultant for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Dr. Gray works with athletes as well as regular patients of all fitness levels and abilities.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Every patient is different, so talk with your orthopedic doctor to learn what treatment options are best for you.