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What Is Tennis Elbow?


What Is Tennis Elbow?

"Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is caused when the tendons in the forearm, near the elbow, are overworked," says Bridget Dungan, PT, DPT, physical therapist at ShiftPT in New York City. Overuse results in inflammation and sometimes even produces small tears in these tendons. And despite its sport-specific name, the injury isn't exclusive to tennis players—anyone can get it. "The wrist extensor muscles are what allow you to bend your wrist backward and also stabilize the wrist when you grasp your hand," says Dungan. So while those are common movements on the court, they're every day motions as well. "It can occur with any work or recreational activity that involves repetitive use of the wrist extensors, including painting, cooking, or using the computer mouse excessively," says Dungan. It can even happen from texting on your phone too much!

The Symptoms of Tennis Elbow

"The pain occurs primarily where the tendons attach to the lateral epicondyle, which is the bony prominence on the outside of the elbow," says Dungan. "It can feel like a burning sensation or a dull achy sensation which is aggravated by holding weighted objects." Generally, it starts as mild discomfort and gradually gets worse. While there can be swelling, that's not always the case. "And usually there is no specific injury that a patient can relate the onset of symptoms to," she says. Tennis elbow can weaken one's grip strength—it might even hurt to turn a doorknob or shake someone's hand.

How to Relieve Tennis Elbow

Stretching is a good way to help relieve the symptoms of tennis elbow. Here are two that Dungan suggests trying:

Stretch the wrist extensors: Straighten your arm out in front of you with your palm down. Using the opposite arm, push the backside of your hand down, forcing your wrist to bend forward, so you feel a stretch across the top of the forearm. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other arm.

Stretch the wrist flexors: Straighten your arm out in front of you with your palm facing up. Using the opposite arm, push your palm downward, forcing the wrist to bend backward, so you feel a stretch across the underside of your forearm. Hold for 10 seconds.

Dungan also recommends an ice massage. "While just using an ice pack may feel good, it constricts the blood flow," she says. "An ice massage gives you the pain relief while also promoting blood flow. By applying moving strokes with ice, the blood vessels alternately will dilate and constrict, which actually helps to bring blood to the area and promote healing."

Here's how to perform an ice massage: Freeze water in a paper cup. Once it's frozen, peel back the edges of the cup and massage the area of pain with the ice. Apply pressure and continuously move the ice in a circular or stroking pattern.