Cedars-Sinai Blog

What Is Tennis Elbow?

tennis elbow, lateral epicondylitis, tendons, elbow, overload, pain, tenderness

Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is an overuse injury that leads to pain in the forearm and elbow.

"While it does happen to tennis players, most cases are not caused by tennis."

Despite its name, tennis elbow can happen after doing many different activities, not just working on your backhand.

To find out more about tennis elbow treatment and prevention, we talked to Dr. Kenton Fibel, sports medicine physician at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.

What are some of the warning signs of tennis elbow?

Dr. Fibel: Tennis elbow starts with pain in the lateral (outer part) of the elbow, and it worsens with gripping or activities that require wrist extension, such as holding a tennis racket.

Is tennis elbow only caused by playing tennis?

Dr. Fibel: No. While it does happen to tennis players, most cases are not caused by tennis.

Usually, it affects people who are doing repetitive gripping at work—manual labor, for example—or while lifting weights at the gym.

What’s happening in the body during tennis elbow?

Dr. Fibel: When the elbow sees repetitive strain, tissue thickens and affects the overall structure of the joint.

This repetitive strain also can lead to microtears in the tendon, which cause inflammation and swelling in the tissue surrounding the elbow.

How do you treat it?

Dr. Fibel: Treatment can include icing, anti-inflammatories (oral or topical), and physical therapy to work on forearm stretching and what we call eccentric strengthening. Of course, rest is crucial to recovery.

Also, wearing a tennis elbow strap can help absorb some of the strain placed on the elbow. Think of it like a crutch that takes some of the load off the tendon.

Other than rest, are there ways to prevent tennis elbow from coming back?

Dr. Fibel: Identifying that a certain activity is causing you elbow pain—whether it’s a motion you perform at work or while doing a particular exercise or sport—is an important preventive step.

The eccentric strengthening I mentioned earlier also helps prevent tennis elbow from coming back.

Are there more serious treatment plans?

Dr. Fibel: Sometimes injections can be helpful, such as percutaneous needle tenotomy or platelet-rich plasma injections, but I usually restrict the use of corticosteroid injections because they can potentially have a degenerative effect on the tendon.

More than 90% of the time, tennis elbow is treated without surgery. However, if the patient is not responding to the treatment options I mentioned earlier, surgical management may be recommended.