What is Tennis Elbow and How to Fix It

tennis elbow guide physiotherapy one body Physiotherapy in London

Lateral epicondylitis, or more commonly referred to as tennis elbow, is a common condition that affects many people, not just tennis players. It results from overuse of your forearm muscles and tendons, causing pain and tenderness on the outside of your elbow. It’s a simple condition – but is it simple to fix?

In this guide, we’ll delve into what tennis elbow is, its causes, and the symptoms to watch out for. We’ll also explore how physiotherapy can help you recover and prevent future flare-ups, including effective treatments and exercises. Whether you’re an athlete or someone experiencing elbow pain from daily activities, this guide will help you manage and overcome tennis elbow.

Not sure if your tennis elbow is actually golfer’s elbow? Read our Golfer’s Elbow Guide next.

What is Tennis Elbow?

Let’s recap.

Tennis elbow, officially known as lateral epicondylitis, is a condition characterised by pain and tenderness on the outside of your elbow. This occurs when the tendons in your elbow, which connect your forearm muscles to the bone, become overloaded, usually due to repetitive motions. 

Despite the name, you don’t have to play tennis to develop this condition. It affects a wide range of people, especially those aged 35 to 54, according to the NHS. This overuse injury can stem from various activities, such as painting, typing, or using tools, all of which can strain the forearm muscles and tendons. 

Tennis elbow results in inflammation and microscopic tears in the tendons, leading to pain and reduced grip strength. This diagram shows the tendons impacted in this condition and how they connect the extensor muscles in your forearm to the lateral epicondyle in your elbow:

tennis elbow anatomy diagram Physiotherapy in London

Tennis Elbow Symptoms

The key symptom of tennis elbow is pain in your outer elbow. This pain may:

  • Shoot down your forearm and into your wrist,
  • Worsen when you grip and twist an object,
  • Reduce your range of motion in the elbow joint,
  • Flare up in the morning or during movement,
  • Keep you awake at night.

You might also feel some tenderness and swelling around your outer elbow – this is caused by the inflammation of the tendons.

If your pain is in the inner elbow, you may have golfer’s elbow. If your elbow pain is focused on the joint and doesn’t move to your forearm, you may have arthritis. The best way to find out exactly what ails you is to book an appointment with a physiotherapist – we can assess your symptoms and provide a diagnosis.

Causes

Tennis elbow doesn’t just happen to tennis players. At One Body, we see patients from all walks of life present with this condition. Some common activities that can result in tennis elbow include:

  • Repetitive use of hand tools (e.g. screwdrivers and hammers).
  • Playing racquet sports (e.g. tennis, squash and badminton).
  • Painting, especially with repetitive arm movements.
  • Typing or using a computer mouse extensively.
  • Playing certain musical instruments.
  • Frequent lifting or carrying heavy objects.
  • Gardening and other manual labour tasks.

It’s the repetitive motion of these activities that can lead to tennis elbow. Through repetitive motions, the muscles and tendons are strained and overworked. This leads to microscopic tears in the tendon fibres that usually stabilise your wrist. It’s these tears that cause the pain and inflammation you are feeling.

Importantly, if left untreated, the tendons can continue to degenerate. This makes it harder for your body to recover naturally and it will weaken your arm significantly. Thankfully, you don’t have to live with the pain or long-term consequences – tennis elbow can be easily treated!

Book a London Physiotherapy Appointment to get started.

Can Physiotherapy Help?

Yes, it can!

Physiotherapists can be instrumental in helping patients with elbow conditions, including tennis elbow. In the UK, physiotherapists are licensed with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and trained medical professionals. This means that we are skilled in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal issues. 

We can perform a comprehensive assessment to provide an accurate diagnosis and create a tailored treatment plan, all from the convenience of one of our state-of-the-art physiotherapy clinics in London. This means you don’t need to endure long NHS wait times to get the care you need. 

We’ll explore the exact treatments we frequently recommend for tennis elbow below. But to find out more about how you can use your private health insurance to cover physiotherapy for tennis elbow, read this guide next.

Tennis Elbow Treatment Options

Treatment for tennis elbow begins with patient education – we don’t just jump straight to stretching and exercises! The key aspects your physio will talk to you about may include:

  • Rest and recovery: when to rest your elbow to aid healing.
  • Inflammation reduction: techniques to reduce inflammation effectively and manage your pain.
  • Understanding causes: identifying activities or movements that led to the condition.
  • Prevention strategies: we’ll talk about how to avoid triggers in the future by adjusting your movements.
  • Proper techniques: we’ll explain how the exercises and movements we will recommend can alleviate pain and prevent recurrence.

It’s very important that you listen to your physiotherapist. You might be eager to start exercising and get back to your normal life, but if you aren’t properly resting your arm and giving it a chance to recover, you could exacerbate the condition.

Once we have talked about what your physiotherapy will involve, we’ll create a schedule for you to follow at home and book future sessions to come into the physiotherapy clinic. These sessions might involve both massage therapy and targeted exercises.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy can effectively manage tennis elbow symptoms by reducing pain, improving flexibility, and enhancing blood flow to the area to stimulate healing. 

In physiotherapy, we regularly use massage therapy to treat a whole range of musculoskeletal ailments. Regularly massaging an area helps to break down scar tissue and increase circulation, promoting faster recovery. For tennis elbow, we will massage the wrist, forearm and elbow area. It’s always best to get a massage from a professional physiotherapist – don’t attempt to massage any injury on your own!

In addition, we may recommend anti-inflammatory painkillers and ice or heat packs to help reduce pain and swelling. This combination of therapies provides a good approach to managing and alleviating the discomfort you might feel when you get your tennis elbow diagnosis.

Once you are on the road to healing, we will explore stretches and exercises.

Exercises

Exercises for tennis elbow involve stretching and releasing the muscles in your forearm. This is typically done by flexing the wrist and gradually increasing the load by adding weights.

Your physiotherapist will take you through the exercises and show you how to perform them. You can then do these at home, following the schedule your physiotherapist gives you.

Common exercises include:

  • Forearm pronation and supination
  • Wrist flexor stretch
  • Eccentric wrist extension exercises

Exercise is an effective treatment during the recovery stage. It ensures that your arm retains strength and mobility as your tendons heal. We will also take you through exercises that encourage you to use your arm with proper technique.

Adapting how you move your arm to avoid placing strain on your elbow will not just help your elbow heal, but also prevent future flare ups and recurrences of tennis elbow.

staying active to heal lower back pain and aches Physiotherapy in London

Do you need surgery?

Surgery for tennis elbow is considered a last resort if the conservative therapies we recommend have been ineffective. Before considering surgery, we might recommend other therapies such as:

  • Shockwave therapy – using sound waves to promote healing,
  • Ultrasound therapy – using sound waves to improve blood flow and reduce inflammation,
  • Dry needling – using thin needles to relieve muscle tension,
  • Corticosteroid shots – injecting steroids to reduce inflammation.

You have quite a few options to explore. However, if surgery appears to be the best way forward, the procedure you will need is called lateral humeral epicondylectomy. This involves cutting away the damaged tendon to remove any scar tissue and damage, then reattaching the tendon and waiting for your arm to heal. It’s a quick procedure – it can be completed in a half hour – but it will require a trip to your nearest hospital. We can’t perform surgery at the physio clinic!

FAQs

How to cure tennis elbow?

To cure your tennis elbow you need to allow the tendons to heal. With the help of a physiotherapist and plenty of rest, it should heal by itself. However, to ensure your tennis elbow doesn’t come back or flare up, you’ll also need to make adjustments to your lifestyle.

How long does tennis elbow take to heal?

On average, it will take several months. 3 to 6 months is totally normal with conservative treatments like physiotherapy. If your elbow has not healed or improved in several months, your physiotherapist or doctor may recommend surgery.

What is the best exercise for tennis elbow?

The best exercise for tennis elbow involves stretching and twisting the wrist to target the wrist extensor muscles that are attached to the damaged tendon in your elbow.

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