Lateral epicondylitis – Definition
Lateral epicondylitis is pain at the elbow. The pain occurs over the bone on the outside of the elbow. There are several muscles and tendons that attach on this area of the bone.
This condition is often called tennis elbow, but it is not restricted to people who play tennis. It can also occur in people with jobs that require repetitive motions such as roofers and carpenters.
Lateral epicondylitis – Causes
Lateral epicondylitis is caused by damage to a tendon.
Tendons connects muscles to bone. Repetitive or stressful movements of the muscles causes strain and pain at the tendon. The tendons associated with lateral epicondylitis are connected to forearm muscles. These muscles are active when you grip something, such as a tennis racquet. Actions that can cause irritation to the tendons of the elbow include:
- Improper technique for hitting a tennis ball
- Improper size of tennis racquet or tension of racquet strings
- Improper golf swing technique or grip of golf clubs
- Doing certain arm motions too much, such as:
- Tennis strokes
- Golf swings
- Using a hammer or screwdriver
Lateral epicondylitis – Risk Factors
Factors that increase your risk of lateral epicondylitis include:
- Playing tennis or golf
- Work that requires repetitive wrist extension and gripping with a closed fist
- Muscle imbalance
- Decreased flexibility
- Advancing age
Lateral epicondylitis – Symptoms
Lateral epicondylitis may develop slowly over time. It may not be associated with a sudden injury. Symptoms include:
- Pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow
- Possibly pain extending down the forearm
- Tightness of forearm muscles
- Stiffness or trouble moving the elbow or wrist
- Lack of full elbow extension
Pain may be most noticeable when doing activities like:
- Shaking hands
- Turning doorknobs
- Picking up objects with your palm down
- Hitting a backhand in tennis
- Swinging a golf club
- Pressing on the outside of the elbow
Lateral epicondylitis – Diagnosis
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. You may also be asked about your recent physical activity.
The doctor will examine your elbow for:
- Pain on the outside of the elbow when:
- Doing certain arm motions
- Pressure is applied on the outside of the elbow
- Stiffness of elbow and wrist movement
X-rays are not usually necessary. However, an x-ray may be needed if the doctor suspects a problem with the bones such as calcium deposits.
Lateral epicondylitis – Treatment
Avoid activities that cause pain. Do not play sports or do repetitive motions, until the pain is gone. You may need to alter how you do certain activities:
- When lifting objects, lift with your palms up.
- Consult a sports professional to check your form when playing tennis or golf
Ice may help decrease some discomfort and swelling. Apply ice pack to the outside of the elbow for 15-20 minutes. Repeat for about four times a day for several days. Do not apply ice directly to your skin. Wrap the ice or cold pack in a towel.
The following medication may help reduce swelling in the tendon and pain:
- Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)
- Naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Topical pain medicines (eg, creams, patches) applied to the skin
If medication does not decrease your pain, do not return to physical activity. Check with your doctor.
Certain injuries may require a brace. It is placed on your forearm. This brace limits the force of your forearm muscles on the tendon.
The doctor may inject cortisone into the tendon. This may help to reduce pain and inflammation in the short term. Unfortunately the injection may not help in the long run.
When You Are Ready to Return to Exercise
- Heat may be helpful when you are ready to return to physical activity. It can decrease the stiffness in the muscle or tendon.
- Start gentle stretching of the wrist and elbow. Follow your doctor’s recommendations. Do not push the stretch to the point of pain. Hold each stretch for about 10 seconds and repeat six times.
- Try strengthening exercises for your forearm muscles. Follow your doctor’s recommendations.
- Gradually return to your sport. Talk to a sports professional to adjust your technique, if needed.
Lateral epicondylitis – Prevention
To reduce your risk of getting tennis elbow:
- Keep your arm muscles strong. This will decrease the stress on the tendons.
- After a short warm-up period, stretch out your arm muscles.
- Learn the proper technique for activities that require forearm motion.
- If you play tennis, ask a tennis specialist to check your:
- Technique for hitting the ball, especially your backhand
- Racket size, tension of racket strings, and composition of the racquet frame.