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Take a Swing at a Debilitating Condition: Tennis Elbow

Monday, April 11, 2022 10:01 AM

It’s that time of year to pick up a tennis racket. But rigorous workouts in this sport could leave your elbow aching with lateral epicondylitis, also known as tennis elbow. It’s a common condition that can be debilitating. It’s one of the more painful overuse injuries.

“It’s a degenerative process in the tendon of the elbow area, but many people think of it as an inflammatory condition,” explains Dr. Peter Waller, primary care sports medicine specialist at NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Institute. “The tendons experience microtears, or repetitive microtrauma, which makes the elbow area tender.” 

tennis elbow

As many as three percent of Americans – or nearly 10 million – are affected by the progressive and painful condition. Sometimes tennis elbow can be the result of a traumatic injury that comes when using your hand and wrist to break a fall. Both men and women are equally at risk and usually, people over age 40 are mostly impacted; however, there are more younger adults who are developing tennis elbow with the growing popularity of gaming, or esports. Additionally, painters, plumbers, chefs, butchers, carpenters, musicians, basket weavers, and knitters are all prone to feeling the pain of tennis elbow; really anyone who works using their hand, wrist, and arm that’s repetitive in nature, aggravating tendons in the elbow and forearm.

“Anyone who reaches, lifts, grips or grasps repeatedly while working could develop tennis elbow,” Dr. Waller says. “If you experience pain or discomfort when you touch the outside of your elbow, or when you do activities such as turning a doorknob, shaking hands, or carrying heavy bags, you likely have tennis elbow.” Dr. Waller adds, “You also might notice losing your range of motion in your elbow or a weakening grip. In time, the pain can travel down your forearm to your hand.”

If tennis elbow isn’t treated properly, daily activities could be impacted. Consider rest and physical therapy to stretch and strengthen muscles. It’s also important to check your posture. Improving your technique might prevent a recurrence of tennis elbow too. And be sure to warm up muscles before taking on strenuous tasks.  

It usually takes three to six weeks to feel better. A brace might help to support the elbow. Icing and anti-inflammatory medications also are good for recovery.

For more severe cases, or rapid recovery, there are other options.

  • Corticosteroid shot. This injection treatment can help with pain immediately but might lead to a relapse or prolonged recovery.
  • Platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP).  This injection therapy that uses a patient’s blood to reintroduce platelet-rich plasma into the injured tendon, accelerating healing, has been shown to be superior for long term improvement compared to corticosteroid injections.
  • Bone Marrow Aspirate Concentrate (BMAC). This is an emerging treatment to restore diseased or damaged tissues, showing promise with further research.
  • Topical Nitroglycerin Patches. These are thought to enhance tissue healing through increased local blood flow, collagen synthesis and more, but research is lacking, and some side effects include headaches and skin rashes.

Most cases improve with conservative treatments, never requiring surgical intervention. But in some cases, minimally invasive tendon debridement procedures or surgery might be necessary to reverse the effects of tennis elbow.

“The good news is with immediate and proper attention to a tennis elbow injury, 80% of patients have symptom improvement or resolution within the year,” Dr. Waller notes.

The NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Center provides comprehensive, personalized treatment for patients. From the most advanced diagnostic imaging to specially trained physical therapists and expert physicians including sports medicine specialists like Dr. Waller, who specializes in overuse injuries, non-surgical musculoskeletal care and ultrasound-guided injections, the Center offers convenient access and expert care.