What Is Tennis Elbow And How Do You Prevent It?

tennis elbow
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Although tennis elbow is usually a fairly mild condition for which there are a range of effective treatments, it’s still something best avoided entirely because it can take a while to heal and can recur if you don’t take appropriate action to strengthen the area.

For more information on tennis elbow, including what tends to cause it and how you can prevent it, we spoke to Karen Gambardella, a physiotherapist at Bupa Health Clinics.

What is tennis elbow? How can you identify it?

Pain or tenderness around the outside of the elbow is lateral epicondylitis, commonly known as tennis elbow, although it can occur with any sport. Tennis elbow is the most common cause of forearm pain and tends to affect men and women equally with the dominant arm more commonly affected.

It can often be mistaken for golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis) because it causes pain in a similar area. However, golfer’s elbow presents on the inner side of the arm and elbow whereas tennis elbow presents on the outside of the elbow and forearm.

If you’re experiencing pain when making a fist, making a gripping action or when you extend your wrist and fingers, you may have tennis elbow.

What causes it?

Tennis elbow is an overuse injury that usually occurs in the muscles and tendons in the forearm. There are several muscles in your forearm, which are responsible for extending your wrist and hand. These muscles all attach at the same point on your elbow, creating a common extensor tendon.

Tennis elbow is usually triggered by repetitive stress or overuse of these forearm muscles, which can lead to microtears or thickening of the tendon. While you can get it from playing tennis, this actually only accounts for a relatively small percentage of cases. More often it’s caused by everyday activities involving repetitive lifting and gripping such as decorating or gardening.

How can you prevent it?

You can take steps to reduce the stress on the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbow. It may be that you need to change your technique to do this or reduce the time spent exercising.

Some ways you can help to prevent tennis elbow are:

  • Identify the repetitive actions you do and try to avoid or change them.
  • Take breaks during or between tasks that involve using your arms.
  • If you’re lifting, carry the weight close to your body and keep your palms facing upwards.
  • If you play a sport, make sure you're using the right technique. You may want to get a coach to help you with this.
  • Make sure you’re using equipment that’s suitable for you. For example, make sure your racket handle is the right size.
  • Include exercises in your exercise regime that help to strengthen your elbow. A physiotherapist will be able to help with this and it can also reduce the risk of the injury coming back.

How do you treat it?

The treatment for tennis elbow depends on how long you've had it and which treatments you've already tried.

To make a full recovery, you’ll need to rest your arm and avoid the activities that make it worse. This also gives your tendon time to heal. Most people find that their tennis elbow improves within a year and there are some self-help methods you can try:

  • Lift objects with your palm facing up, not down, as this will put less strain on your damaged muscles, but try to avoid lifting and gripping where you can.
  • Placing a cold compress like a bag of frozen peas or a heat pack such as a hot water bottle on your elbow may temporarily relieve the pain. Don't apply ice or a heat pack directly to your skin because it could damage it, and don’t leave it on for more than 15 minutes every couple of hours.
  • You might also try wearing a special clasp, strap, splint or brace around your forearm when doing activities that could trigger tennis elbow. These are intended to relieve pressure on your tendon and support your arm muscles. This can be combined with physiotherapy.
  • If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. It’s worth checking with your pharmacist to see what the best medication they’d recommend for where the pain is.

While these treatments may help to reduce discomfort initially, strengthening the area is important in order to restore muscle balance within the forearm and reduce the risk of symptoms reoccurring when activity levels increase. A physiotherapist will be able to support you with this and is usually recommended by your GP if pain persists.

If this doesn’t work and your pain is still severe, your doctor will explore other treatments such as a steroid joint injection or surgery.

If you have it, how long does it take to go away and is it likely to recur?

Many people with mild symptoms of tennis elbow will find that, with rest and self-help treatments, their pain eases after four to six weeks. If your symptoms don’t improve after this time, see your GP for advice. If you have severe elbow pain, can’t move your elbow or have loss of feeling, contact your GP straightaway.

Physiotherapy can also play an important role in the treatment of tennis elbow and you can discuss a referral to physiotherapy with your GP.

To reduce the risk of tennis elbow recurring, it is important to strengthen your forearm muscles before reintroducing your previous levels of activity. A physiotherapist will be able to guide you on the most appropriate ways for you to do this and help facilitate a safe return to exercise.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.