Don’t let Tennis Elbow put you off your game

Cameron Hatrick

With summer fast approaching, playing sport and getting fit is back on the agenda for many, but tennis elbow is a common problem that can get in the way, affecting exercise, work and general day-to-day activities. Orthopaedic consultant Cameron Hatrick has some advice.

The symptoms
Lateral epicondylitis, more commonly referred to as tennis elbow, is a condition that causes pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow. While symptoms will often come and go, it can have an impact on elements of everyday life, like using a knife and fork, shaking hands, or gripping a pen.

The problem mainly affects people between the ages of 35 -55, and is caused by straining the muscles attached to the bony prominence (the ‘lateral epicondyle’) on the outside of your elbow, which creates small tears. When being diagnosed, a doctor will check that the discomfort isn’t being caused by other problems such as early arthritis or bony impingement and, in chronic cases, may refer the patient for an MRI scan for confirmation.

Symptoms to look out for include elbow pain, difficulty when straightening the arm, slight swelling around the elbow joint and problems lifting or carrying objects.

What are the causes?
As the name suggests, tennis elbow can be caused by exercise, but it’s not just restricted to racquet sports. Cricket, golf, climbing, and insufficient time spent warming up can all create the problem.

Overstressing muscles can be triggered by multiple everyday activities that place repeated strain on the forearms, including heavy lifting, jerking movements and general manual work.

The condition usually appears gradually over time, but can also occur suddenly after a pulling injury or even a direct blow to the outside of the elbow.

Treating tennis elbow
Symptoms improve naturally in most cases, but this requires rest and avoiding any strenuous activity for at least several weeks. This can be difficult for keen sportsmen and those whose problems are work-related. Additional measures for pain relief, include anti-inflammatories, ice packs and wearing a ‘lateral epicondylitis clasp’ just below the elbow.

Stretching and strengthening exercises from a physiotherapist are helpful to aid healing of the micro-tears in the tendon. A steroid injection can be administered for short-term relief in severe or chronic cases.

If these measures don’t help, surgery can be used as a last resort. The operation involves removing the damaged part of the tendon, but it’s only required by a small number of patients.

Avoiding injury
Some of the simple ways to significantly reduce the risk of getting tennis elbow are:

  • Resting when needed - regardless of the activity, this is the best way to reduce strain and avoid any issues that could occur
  • Using the correct technique during sport - coaches and trainers should be able to give you advice
  • Communicate with your employer - working in an environment where there’s a risk of excessive strain could eventually lead to problems

If you are suffering from persistent symptoms that could be related to tennis elbow, you should visit your GP or a local physiotherapist.