Understanding the Tennis Elbow Injury

You don’t have to be Roger Federer or Serena Williams to suffer an injury of the muscles and tendons of the elbow, because despite its name, it can be caused by any repetitive force or tension in the area, such as housekeeping chores and even the practice of other sports, like baseball or swimming.

The medical name for this injury is epicondylitis (which can be of the lateral or medial kind), so it’s understandable that it is better known for its colloquial name, tennis elbow, even though tennis players add up to less than 5% of the people who suffer this injury.

However, statistics change dramatically within the tennis players population since, up to 50% of players have suffered or will suffer a tennis elbow injury. This is because of the constant use of the racket with a not very refined technique, especially on the backhand stroke, which causes an excessive tear of the joint until the tendons or tissues that connect muscles to bones are torn.

90% of epicondylitis cases are of the lateral kind, and are manifested as pain that starts on the outside or inside the elbow and radiates up or down along the forearm. It is more common in adults and may be caused by repetitive actions that force the wrist to work; i.e. when using a screwdriver, knife or even doing housekeeping chores.

Furthermore, the medial type is characterized by pain on the inside of the arm, is common in professional tennis players and is caused by the forehand stroke. It can also occur during the practice of other sports including swimming, golf and baseball, as well as people carrying heavy objects and because of that it is also known as baseball player’s elbow or “trunk” elbow.

It’s safe to say that in every epicondylitis case, intense pain is felt over the elbow and it can expand to the muscle of the forearm. Even though this discomfort may occur only when you make an effort or movement to lift objects or repeat an action for a long period of time, it is also a sign of lack of strength in the forearm.

Tennis elbow can be diagnosed through the manifestation of symptoms or by an expert exploring the joint, and if there are any doubts an x-ray may be requested to make sure the bone has not suffered a small fracture.

The tennis elbow injury does not always appear spontaneously, because sometimes there’s some pain that lets you know something is wrong; even if the pain is not very intense there is inflammation. This is when you should discontinue sports or activities that cause discomfort, take anti-inflammatory medication and apply ice daily for 20 minutes until the discomfort disappears.

What if the pain doesn’t go away?

If, however, the swelling or pain grow stronger or don’t disappear, we recommend applying ice, bandage the joint, and go to the doctor. Treatment and recovery depend on how inflamed the tendon is (the longer the pain lasts, the longer the recovery), and consists of the elbow being at rest, administration of anti-inflammatory medication and a program of exercises to do at home or rehabilitation center. Only in very extreme cases surgery is needed.

It is worth mentioning that in order to prevent the painful tennis elbow you should improve the joint movements, i.e. lifting heavy objects with both hands and in the case of athletes, stretching before exercising or playing; and of course don’t forget to practice the proper striking techniques.

Note also that this kind of injury don’t depend on whether or not you warm up before playing or the very moment of the game, so the best way to prevent them is through a constant flexibility training routine (like yoga) and the strengthening of the tendons.


Fay Martinez, PhD, is Carmona Nutrition’s director of curriculum. She leads the development of the organization’s educational programs and courses.

Back to top