Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, refers to overuse of arm muscles that creates elbow pain. Tennis elbow pain occurs in the area at the outside of the elbow, where tendons and muscles attach to it. If the pain is on the inner elbow, it is referred to as “golfer’s elbow.” Symptoms of tennis elbow include pain around the outer elbow, made worse by squeezing, lifting, opening things, and other symptoms. While tennis elbow will affect up to 50% of tennis players, you do not have to play tennis to get it. Treatments include rest, ice, and pain medications. Surgery is considered a last resort for treating tennis elbow. But if you still have elbow and forearm pain and stiffness after more than 6 to 12 months of non-surgical treatment (rest, ice, rehabilitation), you may consider surgical treatment. When making your decision, keep in mind:
- Resting the tendon is important. A typical case of tennis elbow takes 6 to 12 months to heal. In some cases, the pain lasts for 2 years or longer.1 With tendon rest and rehabilitation and (possibly) 1 to 3 corticosteroid shots, most people with tennis elbow heal within a year.
- Tennis elbow tendon damage gets worse when you continue painful, aggravating activity.
- There are various surgical procedures for treating tennis elbow. But there is no evidence to support any one technique as being most effective or to prove that surgery is better than other treatment.
Risk factors for tennis elbow include:
- Activities that involve repeated movements of the forearm, wrist, and fingers. This includes grasping and twisting arm movements done in jobs (such as carpentry, plumbing, or working on an assembly line), daily activities (such as lifting objects or gardening), and sports (such as racquet sports, throwing sports, or swimming).
- Improper techniques while doing certain movements, such as gripping a handle or twisting an object.
- Improper equipment for work, daily activities, and sports, such as using a hammer or a tennis racquet with a grip that is the wrong size for your hand.
- Age. Tennis elbow is most common in people who are in their 40s.
- History of tendon injuries. Some people seem susceptible to tendon injury, based on a history of various tendon injuries such as rotator cuff disorders.
When is tennis elbow surgery appropriate?
Surgical tendon repair is a reasonable treatment when there are large tears in the tendon from a sudden (acute) injury or if there is other severe damage to the elbow. Surgery may be a reasonable treatment for tennis elbow if you:
- Have elbow pain after more than 6 to 12 months of tendon rest and rehabilitation.
- Cannot do normal daily-living and job-related activities because of elbow pain.
- Have had corticosteroid shots and still have elbow pain.