Tennis Elbow: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is a common condition that causes pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow. Learn about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for this overuse injury.

What is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow is a condition that causes pain on the outside of the elbow due to inflammation or tiny tears in the tendons that attach the forearm muscles to the bony bump on the outside of the elbow (lateral epicondyle). Despite its name, tennis elbow can affect anyone who performs repetitive arm, elbow, and wrist movements, not just tennis players.

The condition is caused by overuse and repetitive stress on the forearm muscles and tendons. Activities that can lead to tennis elbow include:

  • Playing racket sports like tennis, squash, or badminton
  • Repetitive work tasks like using tools, typing, or painting
  • Lifting heavy objects repeatedly
  • Forceful gripping or twisting motions of the wrist

Symptoms of Tennis Elbow

The most common symptoms of tennis elbow include:

  • Pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow that may radiate into the forearm
  • Weak grip strength
  • Pain when lifting or bending the arm
  • Pain when gripping small objects like a pen
  • Stiffness in the elbow

Symptoms usually develop gradually and worsen over time if the repetitive activities continue. Pain may be mild at first but can become severe enough to impact daily activities.

Diagnosing Tennis Elbow

A doctor can diagnose tennis elbow by taking a medical history and performing a physical exam. They will check for tenderness on the outside of the elbow and pain with certain movements. Imaging tests like X-rays or MRIs are not usually needed but may be ordered to rule out other conditions.

Treatment Options for Tennis Elbow

Treatment for tennis elbow aims to relieve pain and allow the tendons to heal. Options include:

Rest and Activity Modification

The first step is to rest the affected arm and avoid or modify the repetitive activities that caused the condition. Using the other arm, taking frequent breaks, and improving technique can help.

Ice and Heat

Applying ice packs for 15 minutes several times a day can reduce pain and inflammation in the acute phase. Once inflammation subsides, heat may provide relief and improve blood flow to aid healing.

Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can relieve pain and inflammation. A doctor may prescribe stronger pain relievers if needed.

Braces and Straps

Wearing a brace or strap around the forearm just below the elbow can take pressure off the inflamed tendons and provide relief, especially during activities.

Physical Therapy

A physical therapist can teach stretching and strengthening exercises to promote healing and improve the strength and flexibility of the forearm muscles. Eccentric exercises that focus on slowly lowering weight have been shown to be particularly effective.


In severe cases that don't respond to other treatments, a doctor may recommend a corticosteroid injection to reduce inflammation or platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections to stimulate healing.


Surgery is rarely needed for tennis elbow but may be considered if symptoms persist for more than 6-12 months despite non-surgical treatment. Surgery involves removing damaged tendon tissue and reattaching healthy tendon to bone.

Prevention of Tennis Elbow

To prevent tennis elbow from developing or recurring:

  • Warm up and stretch your arm and wrist muscles before activities
  • Use proper technique and equipment for your sport or work tasks
  • Strengthen your forearm muscles with exercises
  • Take frequent breaks and avoid overuse
  • Consider switching to a lighter racket or larger grip size

With rest and proper treatment, most people with tennis elbow can return to their regular activities within a few weeks to a few months. So don't let this common overuse injury keep you from getting a grip on the things you love to do!