Understanding Tennis Elbow: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

I often get a lot of comments from people and clients that have tennis elbow and tell me how they’ve never played tennis before, or any racquet sports but have tennis elbow. How can one get tennis elbow without having played tennis recently or ever? In this post, we will dive deeper into understanding what tennis elbow is, how one can develop tennis elbow and what the treatments might look like with Physiotherapy in Mississauga.

What Is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is a condition represented by elbow pain, specifically in the back/outside region of the elbow joint; it’s also known as lateral epicondylitis. This elbow pain tends to be elicited by any repetitive forearm and/or wrist movement, which then tugs and creates tension in the elbow muscles. 

The name “tennis elbow” originated 100+ years ago when tennis had been invented, and as the sport improved and became more competitive, players would start to get pain in their elbow when playing as they try to achieve more power and speed. You can imagine at that time, the racquets, balls and strings weren’t very advanced and efficient, which put a lot of stress on their elbow joint, causing pain and leading to the name tennis elbow. Nowadays, we actually see tennis elbow symptoms more in non-tennis players than we see in tennis players!

What Triggers Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) tends to be aggravated by repetitive movements of the elbow, forearm and wrist/finger muscles, which then puts stress and strain on the tendons that attach to the elbow. Jobs such as carpenters, painters, butchers, and office workers just to name a few, would be the type of profession that exposes people to continuous repetitive motions at the elbow, wrist and fingers. 

By overusing the muscles, what that does is that it creates strain at the origin of the tendons (at the elbow joint), causing the tendons to flare up and become painful. Things like lifting mugs, opening doors and gripping items create tension in the forearm muscles, and if they are strained, they will likely cause chronic pain in the elbow joint. This pain can radiate from the elbow down to the back of the forearm.

Although the pain occurs at the elbow, many times I have found that people tend to develop tennis elbow not from a lack of strength at the elbow/forearm to perform repetitive motions, but a lack of strength at the shoulder. If your shoulder isn’t strong enough to support your daily tasks, your body will likely compensate and find a different source to get the strength and power, and one of the most common areas tends to be the elbow. 

Although the elbow and forearm are designed to support the shoulder, it’s not designed to perform the rigorous and heavy lifting that your shoulder can withstand, which then leads to overuse of the elbow muscles.

Can Tennis Elbow Be Treated With Physiotherapy?

Tennis elbow is a common injury we see as physiotherapists, and is a condition that is treatable. When you see a physiotherapist, they will perform a thorough assessment of the range of motion and strength of your shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers to determine if it’s truly a tennis elbow condition or not, as few other conditions can mimic tennis elbow. 

Once they have performed the assessment, they will create a plan that fits your specific needs. This often includes performing manual therapy around shoulder/forearm muscles, working on mobility/stretching to decrease the tension of the muscles, and slowly introducing strengthening exercises to get the elbow slowly stronger and desensitized to the pain. 

They might as well give suggestions of things to do at home (icing, heat, getting a brace, etc.). Also, part of the plan may likely focus on your shoulder if it was assessed that it is part of the contributing factors to your tennis elbow.

How Many Weeks of Physical Therapy for Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is a condition that tends to take approximately 6-24 months to recover, with 90% of people fully recovering within a year. The reason it takes so long is mainly due to the fact that the strain is located at the tendons, and tendons have less blood supply compared to muscle bellies, and therefore take longer to heal. 

With physiotherapy, you will likely see a plan where the physio checks in with you often in the first 2-3 months of the plan, then gradually decreasing the frequency as the symptoms slowly start to subside in the later stages of the healing. 

By having regular follow-ups early on, it allows the physio to continue treatments to help progress the healing, educate on what to do and what to avoid, and check in with the exercises to see their effects and catch any flare-ups before they get worse.

What Exercises Should I Avoid With Tennis Elbow?

Depending on where you are during the recovery, certain exercises will be prescribed, while other exercises/movements will be suggested to avoid. A good rule of thumb is that if there’s any exercise or movement that is painful (pain at a scale of 5/10 or more), then it is likely safer to avoid it for now and perform a variation of the exercise/movement. 

This is where a physiotherapist can really help as they can find ways to modify, progress or regress the exercises that will help you recover from your tennis elbow.

Key Takeaways

Now that you have done your research, and you better understand what tennis elbow is, and how it can be treated, it’s time to take action. Our clinicians have treated many clients with tennis elbow, who have made successful recoveries! Book your appointment today and don’t let your elbow continue to hold you back!