Tennis elbow happens when you do a repetitive motion like twisting or swinging your lower arm a lot. Extra stress on your elbow damages the tendon that connects your forearm muscles to your elbow. Most people get better with a few months of nonsurgical treatment and rest. Providers sometimes call tennis elbow lateral epicondylitis.
Tennis elbow is an injury that causes pain and inflammation in your elbow. It’s usually a repetitive strain injury.
Repetitive strain injuries happen when you use a part of your body to repeatedly do the same kind of motion so often that it damages your tissue.
Tennis elbow gets its name from being a common sports injury for people who play tennis or other racket sports. It happens when you overuse the tendon that connects your forearm muscles to your elbow (your extensor muscle tendon).
The medical term for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis. Epicondylitis is inflammation in the extensor muscle tendon. Lateral epicondylitis means the inflammation is on the lateral side — the outside edge when you hold your arms at your sides with your palms facing forward, the same direction as your eyes.
Any motion that makes you grip or twist and swing your forearm often can cause tennis elbow. Visit a healthcare provider if you have an elbow injury or feel pain that doesn’t get better on its own in a week. Seeing a provider as soon as the pain starts can increase your treatment options (and how well they work).
Tennis elbow is one of the most common causes of elbow pain. Experts estimate that around 3% of all people in the U.S. experience tennis elbow each year.
Even though it’s named for tennis, experts estimate that more than 90% of people who have tennis elbow don’t develop it from playing tennis or other sports.
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The most common tennis elbow symptoms include:
You can’t know for sure you have tennis elbow without visiting a healthcare provider for a diagnosis. Lots of people with tennis elbow feel a specific kind of pain in their elbow and arm. The pain usually feels:
Most people develop tennis elbow in their dominant arm (the side you naturally use for most activities). You’re most likely to have tennis elbow in whichever arm you use the most for a repetitive activity — the arm you hold a racket or tools with.
It’s less common, but it’s possible to develop tennis elbow in both arms at the same time.
Any motion or activity that you frequently repeat can trigger tennis elbow. Extra stress from repetitive movements builds up over time. Eventually, that added use and stress on your extensor muscle tendon causes tiny tears (microtraumas). Those microtraumas cause symptoms you can feel and notice.
It’s less common, but a sudden arm or elbow injury can also cause tennis elbow.
Anyone can develop tennis elbow, but some people are more likely to, including people who:
Athletes who play sports that put stress on their arms or elbows, including:
People whose jobs or hobbies put lots of stress on their elbows, including:
Tennis elbow usually doesn’t cause serious complications. If you keep using your injured elbow before your tendon heals, you can increase your chances of rupturing (tearing) it.
A healthcare provider will diagnose tennis elbow with a physical exam and some tests. They’ll examine your injured elbow and ask about your symptoms. Tell your provider when you first noticed pain, stiffness or other symptoms and if any activities make them worse (or better).
Your provider may use some of the following tests to check for damage inside your arm and take pictures of your elbow:
Your provider will suggest treatments to help your tendon heal. The RICE method is usually the best way to fix tennis elbow:
Other nonsurgical (conservative) tennis elbow treatments include:
Most people don’t need surgery to repair tennis elbow. Your provider may suggest surgery if you’re still having severe symptoms after several months of conservative treatments.
Your surgeon will remove damaged tissue and repair your tendon. Most tennis elbow surgeries are outpatient procedures, which means you can go home the same day.
Your surgeon will tell you which type of surgery you’ll need, what you can expect and how long it’ll take to recover.
You should start feeling better as soon as you start resting your elbow and avoiding the activity that caused tennis elbow. It can take several months for your elbow to heal. It depends on what caused the injury, how severely it damaged your tendon and how long you’ve had pain. Ask your provider what to expect.
The best way to prevent tennis elbow is to avoid overusing your arm and elbow.
During sports or other physical activities:
You should expect to take a break from the physical activities that caused tennis elbow. You may need to stop doing some activities completely, or do them with modifications (like wearing a brace while you work or taking breaks more often).
People almost always make a full recovery from tennis elbow. You should be able to resume all your usual activities once your tendon heals, even if you need surgery.
Tennis elbow can last anywhere from a few months to more than a year. It usually takes around six months to recover, but some people need longer (up to 18 months).
How long it’ll take you to recover depends on a few factors:
Visit a healthcare provider if you think your elbow is injured or you notice any of the following signs of tennis elbow:
Tendinitis is inflammation or irritation in a tendon that makes it swell. That means you technically always have tendinitis if you have tennis elbow. But it’s not an extra condition or injury, just another way your provider might classify what’s going on inside your elbow.
Some people with tennis elbow might actually have tendinosis. No matter what’s causing pain in your elbow, visit a provider as soon as possible.
Tennis and elbow and golfer’s elbow are similar conditions. They’re both repetitive strain injuries caused by overusing your arm and elbow.
Tennis elbow affects the extensor muscle tendon on the outer (lateral) part of your elbow. Golfer’s elbow affects the tendon on the inner (medial) part of your elbow. The medical term for golfer’s elbow is medial epicondylitis.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It’s confusing to learn you have tennis elbow if you’ve never swung a racket in your life. But tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is named for the kinds of arm motions that can irritate and damage a tendon in your elbow. You don’t need to be a Wimbledon contender to have tennis elbow. In fact, most people who have it don’t even play tennis.
Most people need a few months of rest and nonsurgical treatments to let their injured tendon heal. Your provider will tell you which treatments will be best for you and how long you’ll need to avoid certain activities or motions.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/15/2024.
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