Paul has been playing tennis since he was a teenager in England. He now lives in Florida and competes in various USTA leagues.
This article is written entirely from the perspective of a long time player of racquet sports, I have over three decades experience of playing tennis and badminton and have suffered from tennis elbow myself, as well as having known many others who have experienced the problem. I am not a doctor, or a medic, however, just an experienced tennis player.
In this article, I basically tell you which treatments work best, based on my own personal experience, as well as what I have learned from other players and friends that I've known in teams and clubs over the years.
It goes without saying that if you believe that you have a persistent medical problem, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.
All I know is what has worked as the best tennis elbow treatment for me and others, and the answers may surprise some people.
Now that we have got that cleared up, let's briefly examine what tennis elbow actually is.
What is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow is the common name for a form of tendinitis that affects the elbow and arm.
The job of tendons is to attach muscle to bone. Over time, repetitive activities, such as tightly gripping a tennis racket when swinging for a shot, can eventually cause microscopic tears in the tendon tissue.
Tennis Elbow Facts
- It most commonly affects people between the ages of 35 and 65.
- It has been estimated that between 1 and 3 percent of people in the UK are suffering from tennis elbow at any one time.
- Around 5 in 1,000 British people go to see their doctor annually due to problems with tennis elbow.
Classic Symptoms of Tennis Elbow
Pain and tenderness around the bony knob on the outside of the elbow is the tell-tale sign of tennis elbow (note that it is the outside of the elbow that is generally affected, there is another condition that affects the inside of the elbow, which is called golf elbow).
The pain can shoot out from the elbow across the forearm, and is sometimes experienced as a burning sensation.
Although the pain tends to be focused on the elbow and arm, discomfort can also be experienced in the hand or wrist sometimes too, especially when lifting or gripping things.
Do You Only Get The Condition From Playing Racquet Sports?
No. People get it from racquet games such as tennis, squash, racquetball, badminton, but also other sports such as fencing and weightlifting.
Other repetitive pursuits completely unrelated to sports can also cause the condition, such as carpentry, knitting, typing, and also some forms of yard work like raking.
The bottom line is that you can potentially acquire the condition from any pursuit that involves gripping something tightly and repetitive movement.
Main Treatments To Consider
#1 Ice the elbow.
Icing will reduce the pain and swelling. My medical friends have recommended to me that the ice is used for 15-30 minute sessions every 3 or 4 hours for a few days, or until the pain is gone.
#2 Take Painkillers and Anti-Inflammatory Drugs Such as Ibuprofen
Ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen can also help to reduce pain and swelling in the short term. These drugs must be handled with care, however, as they can cause side effects. They are also only a short term solution, good for dealing with the pain and discomfort during or after a tennis match, but certainly not to be used indefinitely.
#3 Rest Your Arm
Certainly resting my arm has helped in my experience. It can take weeks, however, and that can be very frustrating, if you are a keen tennis player. Plus once you are well again, you have to spend time re-learning your game and getting your fitness back (without antagonizing your arm/elbow again!)
#4 Buy an Elbow Strap
This reduces the strain on the injured tendons, which both relieves an existing condition and reduces the chances of it occurring, or getting worse.
There many different straps and bands out there to choose from, I myself am a big fan of the BandIT Therapeutic Forearm Band and have found it a great help.
But there are also plenty of other brands and similar products out there to choose from.
#5 Buy a Flex Bar and Do Exercises
There's been a lot of research on the use of physical exercises to treat tennis elbow in recent years. As a result of the research, there are now hand exercisers that can be bought for a relatively low cost. These can be very effective, in my experience at strengthening the tendons.
One set of exercises involve gripping the ends of a rubber tube with both hands, with it held in a verticle position. The tube is twisted, and then held out horizontally, the tube is allowed to resume its untwisted state with your hand still gripping it. (See video below)
You can also hold one end of the tube and wave it around. The movement of the tube, stretches out and strengthens your muscles/tendons. It sounds so simple, even a little ridiculous, but it actually works!
If you want a specific recommendation from me it would be the Thera-Band FlexBar hand exerciser, which is one of the most popular versions on the market and gives cost effective relief in my experience. In fact if there's one tool I would recommend more than any other, this would be it! I use it while I'm watching TV or in other down time.
I prefer using the Flexbar, but there are also some exercises that you can do without any equipment. Typically, your other hand supplies the resistance needed when exercising to strengthen the tendons in your sore arm. (See video below)
# 6 Surgery
I have no direct experience of the surgery and haven't got a medical background, so I am reluctant to really comment on this style of treatment. I guess if you try the above treatments and your tennis elbow doesn't improve after a period of time, or your symptoms are not those of tennis elbow, then I would certainly recommend that you seek medical advice. I will say that anecdotally there is some dispute about the effectiveness of surgery. I've known a couple of players who've gone down the surgery path and felt that it was of little benefit, so I would make sure that you are in possession of the full facts before you commit.
# 7 Make Sure That Your Racquet Grip is Right for You
This sounds simple, but in my experience there are many amateur players who use a racquet with a grip that isn't the right size. If the grip is too small or large, then you will find yourself gripping too tightly and this can bring on tennis elbow.
The correct grip size is determined by the length between the tip of your ring finger and the bottom lateral palm crease. The length should be between 4 inches and 4-5/8 inches.
Summary of Tennis Elbow Treatments That Work
Below are my own personal conclusions that I've formed from experience.
- In the immediate aftermath of a tennis match, I think icing the elbow and using painkillers/anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can play a role in relieving the pain.
- You should look at cutting down or stopping playing tennis for a few weeks in order to rest your elbow.
- Buy the Thera-Band FlexBar (or another brand) and do the exercises, I was a skeptic, it's hard to believe that the bar can make much difference, but it worked amazingly well for me, and I know others who were equally astounded by the benefits.
- Make sure that your racquet has the correct sized grip for you, you may be holding it much tighter than you need to.
- Wear an elbow strap. Not only does it relieve the strain, pain and stress, it can actually prevent tennis elbow developing, or getting worse.
- If all else fails, or your doctor says your condition is something other than tennis elbow and requires intervention, you may need to resort to surgery. Seek medical advice.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2014 Paul Goodman
Jed Rivera on April 23, 2018:
Great facts about tennis elbow. These are great for tennis players. Thanks for sharing.
Cynthia Lyerly from Georgia on May 13, 2014:
I also recommend taking extra vitamin C. It really works!