This factsheet is for people who have tennis elbow, or who would like information about it.
Tennis elbow is the common name for a condition that causes pain around the outside part of the elbow.
About tennis elbow
The medical term for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis or common extensor tendinopathy because it often affects the outside of your elbow bone, called the lateral epicondyle. This is the bony area you can feel on the outside of your elbow.
Tennis elbow may develop when the tendon that joins the muscles of your forearm to your upper arm (the humerus) becomes damaged and painful. The tendon is called the common extensor tendon (see diagram).
Tennis elbow is a common condition that affects between one and three in 100 people. Anybody can get tennis elbow but it’s most common in people aged between 40 and 60. Depending on the severity, tennis elbow can last between six weeks and two years.
Tennis elbow is most often caused by repeatedly overusing the muscles in your arm or by minor injury. It often gets worse if you continue doing the activity that causes your pain.
Symptoms of tennis elbow
The most common symptom is pain and tenderness on the outside of your elbow and in the muscles of your forearm. Your symptoms will often develop gradually over time and your pain may become constant.
You may feel pain when you:
- grip something, for example holding a pen or shaking someone’s hand
- twist your forearm, for example turning a door handle
- use your keyboard or mouse
- fully lengthen (extend) your arm
Many people with mild symptoms of tennis elbow find that their pain eases with rest and self-help treatments. However, if your symptoms don’t improve after a couple of weeks, see your doctor or physiotherapist (a health professional who specialises in maintaining and improving movement and mobility) for advice.
If you have severe elbow pain, can’t move your elbow joint or have any loss of feeling, you should seek urgent medical attention.
Causes of tennis elbow
Playing racquet sports, such as tennis or badminton, can cause tennis elbow. However, most people who get tennis elbow don’t play tennis. The most common cause of tennis elbow is repeated overuse of your arm.
A range of different activities that involve repeated hand, wrist and forearm movements can also cause tennis elbow. Examples of these include:
- using a screwdriver
- sewing or knitting
- using a keyboard and mouse
You may also get tennis elbow if the muscles in your shoulder are weak, which places more stress on the muscles around your elbow and wrist.
Rarely, you can damage your tendon after a single and often minor incident, such as lifting something heavy or taking part in an activity that you don’t do very often. These activities can cause small tears in your tendon.
Diagnosis of tennis elbow
You don’t usually need to see your doctor if you think you have tennis elbow. However, if your symptoms get worse and aren’t helped by self-help measures and over-the-counter painkillers, see your doctor for advice.
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. He or she can usually diagnose tennis elbow from examining your arm and finding out how your symptoms developed. Further tests are rarely needed, however your doctor may recommend having an X-ray to rule out other conditions, such as arthritis, that can cause elbow pain.
If you have severe tennis elbow that hasn’t got better with normal treatment, your doctor may recommend an ultrasound scan. An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your arm.