Ask an Oakville Physio: What is “Tennis Elbow”?

Tennis player doing mobility exercises from a Oakville Physio clinic

Elbow pain is a common complaint we see at our Oakville Physio and Massage clinic.

People may experience pain on the outside (lateral) elbow or inside (medial) elbow. Outside elbow pain is often termed Tennis Elbow. Inside elbow pain is termed Golfers Elbow.

Tennis elbow and golfers elbow are not exclusive to these athletes!

We see Tennis Elbow in:

  • Office workers (think typing and mousing)
  • Contractors (gripping and twisting tools as well as vibrations)
  • From work around the home (raking leaves and other handy work)
  • Other sport and leisure activities (baseball, curling, darts, weightlifting etc.)

Man at desk showing tennis elbow being treated by an Oakville Physio

Acute Tennis Elbow

“Acute” means sudden. Acute tennis elbow is an injury to the muscles that lift or extend the wrist and fingers. The site of injury is usually the lateral epicondyle, a bony bump on the outside of the elbow where these muscles attach.

Tennis Elbow symptoms present for 6 weeks or longer are considered sub-acute and longer than three months, as chronic tennis elbow.

What are the Symptoms of Tennis Elbow?

Typically those with Tennis Elbow will report pain in the outside of the elbow when performing gripping tasks and even reaching tasks. Pain can also be present when the muscles are stretched. There will often be tenderness to the touch over the outside bone and even in the muscles.

Tennis elbow can also be related to neck stiffness and tenderness and possibly signs of nerve irritation. If there is more nerve involvement most elbow movements will be pain-free, despite that being the area of pain.

What Causes Acute Tennis Elbow?

Acute Tennis Elbow is caused by damaged muscle tissue at the point it anchors to the arm bone at the elbow. It occurs when more force is applied to an area than the normal healthy tissues can handle. This is similar to a strain.

Common Causes of Acute Tennis Elbow:

  • Beginning a new activity or doing too much too fast eg painting a fence, hammering, lots of typing.
  • Excessive gripping or wringing activities
  •  Forearm muscle strength or tightness in muscles

In some cases this elbow injury can occur due to the soft tissues being in poor health, which are easily injured. Inflammation follows the injury, which leads to swelling and elbow pain.

Oakville Physio showing gym on vacation

What Causes Chronic Tennis Elbow?

Chronic Tennis Elbow is associated with degenerative changes in the muscle tissues located at the outside bone or the epicondyle. For a long time this process was thought to be related to inflammation from overuse. This is now known to be incorrect about chronic tennis elbow.

In Chronic Tennis Elbow:

  • There is an increase in chemicals associated with pain transmission in  the nerves.
  • There is a decrease in the blood supply.
  • There are degenerative changes in the extensor tendon.
  • There are changes in coordination of the muscles when using the hand and wrist.
  • There may be longstanding muscle imbalances in the forearm that can impact the position of the elbow

Stay tuned for how a Physiotherapist can help with your Elbow Pain and get you back to your activities of enjoyment!