What is tennis elbow?

by Anthony Marino, PT, DPT

We’ve all heard of “tennis elbow,” but do you know what causes it and how physical therapy can help?

Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is inflammation of the forearm tendons on the outside of the elbow. They usually become damaged from overuse when performing repetitive activities involving gripping, and not just when playing tennis. The damage can also be caused from excessive turning of the wrist when using tools or typing on a computer keyboard and clicking a mouse. This leads to microtears of the lateral elbow tendons, creating pain, tenderness and inflammation at the outside of the elbow.

The symptoms of tennis elbow feel mild at first and progress gradually over weeks to months. There is usually no trauma or specific cause associated with it, but these symptoms can persist and become chronic in nature if not properly treated. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain and tenderness at the outside of the elbow
  • Burning into the forearm musculature
  • Pain with gripping or carrying items
  • Decreased grip strength
  • Pain with rotation of the elbow or wrist
Female physical therapist works the tissue of a female patient's right arm to reduce tension in the muscle and tissue.

These symptoms usually worsen with forceful gripping or repetitive activities. Because this condition can become debilitating, people should seek immediate medical care if experiencing any of the above symptoms for longer than two weeks, to alleviate the condition and prevent further damage. Approximately 80 – 90% of tennis elbow cases are resolved using non-surgical procedures, such as physical therapy, rest, and medication.

Physical therapy is one of the most effective treatments to help alleviate tennis elbow pain. It can usually lead to full resolution of symptoms without the need for surgical invention. Your physical therapist can help you learn several exercises that involve stretching and strengthening of the wrist and that have proven effective in treating tennis elbow. For example, stretching of the wrist extensor musculature helps maintain optimal muscle length and allows the tissues to heal properly.

There are several other effective interventions that physical therapists can perform, including dry needling, soft tissue mobilization, and joint mobilization. Physical therapists also can help you modify any activities that could prevent the condition from healing.

Female physical therapist helping male patient stretch his left forearm in order to strengthen in.

Tennis elbow is a very painful condition that can last anywhere from six months to two years if not properly treated. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, contact a medical professional immediately to ensure the condition can be resolved promptly using non-surgical techniques.

Looking for a physical therapist to treat tennis elbow? Use our clinic locator below to find a Physiquality therapist in your neighborhood.

Thank you to our contributors:

Anthony Marino III, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist at Moreau Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member with several locations in Louisiana. He specializes in instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization, spinal manipulation and functional movement assessment.

www.sportsinjuryclinic.net. Wrist exercise – wrist extensor stretch. YouTube.com.

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