Anyone can get tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis), not just athletes. Repetitive arm motions weaken arm muscles and tear the tendons that attach muscle to bone. Tennis elbow can cause pain when you bend or straighten your arms or grasp or lift items. Most people get relief without surgery.
Tennis elbow is an overuse injury that occurs when tendons (tissues that attach muscles to bones) become overloaded, leading to inflammation, degeneration and potential tearing. It commonly affects tennis players who grip their racquets too tightly. But anyone can develop this painful condition, medically known as lateral epicondylitis.
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Between 1% to 3% of Americans get tennis elbow. It’s most common in people ages 30 to 50 and affects all genders.
Anyone who regularly performs repetitive activities that vigorously use the forearms, wrists or hands can get tennis elbow. Tennis elbow can affect recreational and professional:
People who work in certain professions are also more prone to tennis elbow:
Tennis elbow typically affects your dominant side. But depending on the type of repetitive activities, you may get tennis elbow in both arms.
Tennis elbow is a condition of the lateral (outside) epicondyle tendon, or outer part of the elbow. Golfer’s elbow is a condition of the medial (inside) epicondyle tendon, or inner part of the elbow. The medical term for golfer’s elbow is medial epicondylitis.
People with golfer’s elbow have inner elbow pain that radiates down the arm. They can also have finger numbness and tingling. Golfers can get tennis elbow, just as tennis players may get golfer’s elbow.
Repetitive arm movements can cause your forearm muscles to get fatigued. A single tendon attaches this muscle to the bony bump on the outside of your elbow (lateral epicondyle). As your muscle gets tired, the tendon takes more of the load. This overloading can cause inflammation and pain, known as tendinitis. Over time, this overloading can cause a degenerative condition known as tendinosis. Together tendinitis and tendinosis can then lead to tendon tearing.
Sometimes, a sudden arm or elbow injury causes tennis elbow. Rarely, people develop the condition for no known reason (idiopathic tennis elbow).
Tennis elbow is usually the result of overuse. Symptoms tend to come on slowly. Pain may get worse over weeks and months. Signs of tennis elbow include:
Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam to check for elbow joint pain, swelling and stiffness. Your provider may also ask about activities that can cause pain. To make a diagnosis, you may have one or more of these tests:
Pain from tennis elbow can make it hard to work or do physical activities. The condition can also affect your grip, which can make it difficult to grasp items. In general, tennis elbow doesn’t cause serious, long-term problems.
Tennis elbow may get better on its own with little, if any, treatment. However, that recovery may take up to 18 months. Proven nonsurgical techniques exist that can accelerate your recovery. Nonsurgical and minimally invasive treatments for tennis elbow include:
If symptoms don’t improve after six to 12 months of nonsurgical therapies, your provider may recommend surgery, like an arthroscopic or open debridement of the tendon or a tendon repair. Surgery typically involves removing the injured tendon and muscle. Your provider replaces the damaged tissue with healthy tendon and muscle from a different part of your body. Recovery can take four to six months. Once you’ve had tennis elbow, you may need to wear a brace to keep symptoms from returning.
These steps can help you avoid tennis elbow:
Approximately 95% of people with tennis elbow get better with nonsurgical treatments. Afterward, they can resume activities. It may take six to 18 months for symptoms to go away.
A small number of people need surgery. Between 80% to 90% of people who get tennis elbow surgery see their symptoms improve within one year.
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Anyone who does activities or a job that requires repetitive arm motions (extending and bending) can get tennis elbow. See your healthcare provider if bending and straightening your arm causes pain or your outer elbow is tender to touch. Your provider can offer suggestions to reduce pain and inflammation. Rarely, people with tennis elbow need surgery. With proper treatment, you can safely return to the work or activities you enjoy pain-free.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/17/2021.
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