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Tennis elbow is a painful condition of the elbow caused by overuse. Most people associate tennis elbow with racquet sports such as tennis, where the backhand swing strain the muscles and tendons of the elbow in a way that leads to the condition. But several other sports and repetitive activities can also put you at risk. Most people who get tennis elbow are between the ages of 30 and 50.

Tennis elbow is very prevalent here in the Colorado Mountains, but not necessarily among tennis players. We see it more in occupational activities, chopping wood, cross country skiing, and biking. Painters, plumbers, and carpenters are particularly prone to developing tennis elbow. Studies have shown that auto workers, cooks, and even butchers get tennis elbow more often than the rest of the population. It is thought that the repetition and weight lifting required in these occupations leads to injury.

Personally, I see about 10-12 cases of tennis elbow per month, and this is definitely increasing among our active mountain population, where people keep very active lifestyles well beyond the years that they can easily heal these chronic over use injuries.

Symptoms: What does tennis elbow feel like?

The main symptom of tennis elbow is tenderness and pain that starts at the tip of the elbow. The pain may spread down the forearm. It may go as far as the back of the middle and ring fingers. The forearm muscles may also feel tight and sore. The pain usually gets worse when you bend your wrist backward, turn your palm upward, or hold something with a stiff wrist or straightened elbow. Grasping items also makes the pain worse. Just reaching into the refrigerator to get a carton of milk can cause pain. Sometimes the elbow feels stiff and won't straighten out completely.

Treatment: What can I do to make my pain go away?

There are several treatment options for tennis elbow. Most patients (approximately 80% to 95%) will see improvement with nonsurgical treatment. First of all, you will need to give your arm the proper rest it needs by stopping participation in sports or heavy work activities for several weeks.

Other nonsurgical treatments include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines like aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce pain and swelling; physical therapy; using a brace, steroid injections or shock wave therapy.

When symptoms come from participating in a racquet sport, be sure to check your equipment for a proper fit. Stiffer racquets and looser-strung racquets can often reduce the stress on the forearm, which means that the forearm muscles do not have to work as hard. If you use an oversized racquet, changing to a smaller head may help prevent symptoms from recurring.

Sometimes nonsurgical treatment fails to stop the pain or help patients regain use of the elbow. In these cases, surgery may be necessary. An orthopaedic specialist can help determine what the best surgical approach is for you.