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Lateral Epicondylitis

Lateral epicondylitis is characterized by pain of the outer (lateral) side of the elbow caused by overuse of the muscles of the forearm involved in gripping activities, like holding a tennis racket. These muscles attach to a bony projection of the humerus (the long bone of the arm), called the lateral epicondyle.

Lateral Epicondylitis Hero Image 2

Lateral epicondylitis is characterized by pain of the outer (lateral) side of the elbow caused by overuse of the muscles of the forearm involved in gripping activities, like holding a tennis racket. These muscles attach to a bony projection of the humerus (the long bone of the arm), called the lateral epicondyle. Lateral epicondylitis often occurs in tennis players. For this reason, this condition is commonly referred to as tennis elbow.

What causes Lateral Epicondylitis?

Lateral epicondylitis is typically caused by overuse from repetitive motions, such as swinging a tennis racket. Although this condition most often occurs in tennis players, it can also affect athletes of other sports. Improper mechanics in your sport can cause your tendons to wear out and damage more quickly, leading to lateral epicondylitis. Age can also contribute to degeneration of the tendons. As we grow older, our tendons become weaker and therefore more vulnerable to injury.   

Lateral Epicondylitis is common in these sports:

  • Tennis
  • Baseball (most common pitchers)
  • Softball (most common pitchers)
  • Golf

Symptoms

You may have lateral epicondylitis if you experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Pain on the outside of the elbow
  • Pain extending from the elbow to the wrist  
  • Pain usually associated with a gripping movement of the hand

At first, you may just experience pain when playing sports. As the condition progresses, you may experience pain all the time.

When to see a doctor

If you have symptoms of lateral epicondylitis that do not go away or that get worse with time, make an appointment to see an orthopedic specialist. Your doctor will examine the elbow for pain over the lateral epicondyle. If you have pain on the outside of your elbow while resisting wrist extension, this may indicate lateral epicondylitis.

While most of the time the diagnosis can be made without any imaging studies, occasionally your doctor may prescribe the following imaging tests in order to confirm the diagnosis:

  • X-rays
  • MRI

Non-operative treatment

Lateral epicondylitis is most often treated using non-operative treatments. Conservative treatments include:

  • Resting the affected arm
  • Icing the elbow throughout the day
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications to relieve inflammation and pain
  • Wearing a brace on the elbow or wrist while playing sports
  • Corticosteroid injections (administered by an orthopedic specialist)
  • Platelet-rich plasma injections (administered by an orthopedic specialist)
  • Physical therapy with a licensed professional to stretch and strengthen the arm

You can also try these exercises at home to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the forearm:

Lateral Epicondylitis

Surgical Treatment

If your symptoms do not resolve with non-operative treatments, your doctor may suggest surgery. During surgery to treat lateral epicondylitis, your doctor will  make a small incision over the outside of your elbow, remove the damaged tissue, and reattach the healthy portion of the tendon to the bone.

Recovery

You can return to play when you have recovered full range of motion and strength in the arm and have no more pain. If non-operative treatments are successful, recovery can take four to six weeks. If you require surgery, you may need at least three to four months to fully recover.

Ask your physical therapist if there are changes you can make to your throwing or swinging techniques that may help you prevent lateral epicondylitis from reoccurring in the future. Correcting improper techniques or mechanics can help you avoid further damage to the arm.

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