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Lateral epicondylitis is a chronic condition that causes pain on the outer side of the elbow and weakness in the forearm. The injury is widely known as tennis elbow, though it is certainly not limited to tennis players. People who perform jobs or play sports that place frequent strain on the wrist and forearm are at risk of developing lateral epicondylitis. The condition can usually be remedied in about two weeks at home by avoiding activity and icing the arm. If symptoms persist for several weeks or pain is unbearable, medical evaluation generally is needed to check for serious tendon or muscle damage.
Several tendons near the elbow connect forearm muscles to bones in the joint. Most instances of lateral epicondylitis affect a large tendon that secures the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) muscle. Excess strain and overuse of the ECRB tendon causes it to stretch, inflame, and swell, eventually leading to symptoms of tennis elbow. The ECRB is most susceptible to activities wherein the wrist is frequently rotated and the elbow lifted. Common causes include swinging a tennis racket, hammering nails, sewing, and playing musical instruments.
Lateral epicondylitis tends to come on gradually. A person may notice that his or her arm feels sorer than usual after activity and that forearm muscles are not as strong. Over time, pain radiates from the elbow to encompass the forearm, wrist, and hand. Symptoms worsen over the course of several weeks to the point that it becomes difficult to perform daily tasks, such as picking up a book or opening a drawer.
Most cases of lateral epicondylitis do not require expert medical care. Pain and swelling are usually relieved by resting and icing the elbow for several days. A person also may take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs to help lesson symptoms. The elbow usually starts feeling better in one to two weeks. It is important to return to activities gradually in order to avoid another injury. Many pharmacies and supermarkets sell elbow braces and wraps that can provide extra stability and protection for a recovering joint.
A person who experiences severe pain and a restricted range of motion should visit an emergency room. A doctor can take x-rays and analyze physical symptoms to determine the extent of the injury. Badly strained tendons typically require several weeks of rest and prescription anti-inflammatory drugs. If the ECRB is torn or ligaments and cartilage are damaged, the patient may be referred to a surgeon. With physical therapy, recovery can take up to four months from a severe case of lateral epicondylitis.
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