What is Tennis Elbow Caused By?

Tennis Elbow Keyboard

Tennis Elbow Keyboard

Although the term tennis elbow clearly originated from people hitting tennis balls around, the condition should be termed “computer elbow” at this point. These days, it’s more commonly caused by computer usage.

Tennis elbow would best be described as a repetitive strain injury, which is ultimately induced by repetitive motions, leading to chronic exhaustion of the muscles and tendons at the outside of the elbow.

And you guessed it. The common causes of tennis elbow are manual labor, office work, and, wait for it,… The use of technological devices!

Out of the many patients that I’ve had over the years suffering from tennis elbow, most of them have had one thing in common: mistaking it for tendonitis.

It’s important to understand that tennis elbow and tendonitis are not the same things.

How Do I Get Tennis Elbow?

A majority of the time, most elbow pain without any obvious explanation turns out to be tennis elbow. This is especially the case for those that have been working on the computer a lot (or playing tennis). But, when looking into more obvious symptoms, the tissues around the elbow are known to be tender and sore.

Spending long amounts of time at the keyboard can make it worse as well. These stressors happen in slow motion and may not be as noticeable as yanking hard on the tendons while playing tennis. Computer users, more often than not, can confirm their tennis elbow just by attempting to hit a backhand on the tennis court. Other methods are simple too, like when it hurts to pull the covers over you at night, picking up a gallon of milk, or grasping a dumbbell or barbell at the gym.

If you think this is something you could be experiencing, give it a try! It might be a bit inconvenient to test your elbow this way, but it’s a very reliable method.

A more convenient but less reliable option would be to test for tendonitis. In the case of the tennis elbow, this means restricted extension from flexion. To do this, flex the wrist and hold it in place. Then, try to straighten it. If it hurts quite a bit when you attempt to straighten it, you probably have a case of tennis elbow.

What Can You Do?

The main issue with tennis elbow, is the many people believe that surgery is the only option to fix the problem. But, there are plenty of non-surgical treatments, all just as effective.

1. Rest:

Rest is ultimately your first line of defense against tennis elbow. Even minor injuries such as this one aren’t likely to magically go away on their own if you continue doing the same things that irritated your muscles in the first place. Just resting the arm as much as possible for a week can make a huge difference.

2: Exercise

Now, this may seem odd considering my first tip was rest. But after initially resting, it’s important to find an even balance of rest and a variety of basic exercises to maximize recovery from a repetitive strain injury. But, just like with any injury, we have to beware of “overdoing it”. Gradually training the flexor muscles and tendons (those that bend limbs) to tolerate exercise again is crucial. A condition such as this won’t get better overnight, but simple to intermediate exercise can cause improvement without over-stimulating.

3. Stretching and Mobilizing:

Stretching is important for various therapies, especially in cases where there is movement restriction and discomfort. Muscle trigger points respond very well to stretches and in my experience, it works even better in this muscle group. Trigger points are almost always a factor when talking about tennis elbow. Although it can be tricky to fully stretch the muscles involved in this condition, I have some tips for making it a bit easier:

  • Stand with your arm out in front of you and place your hand against a wall with the fingers pointed out to the side
  • Straighten your elbow and press into the wall so that your wrist is sharply flexed
  • Hold for a minute

I also recommend mobilizing. Mobilization entails dynamic stretches and rhythmic movements. This has shown to be even more stimulating than simple static stretching alone. To mobilize the forearms:

  • Sit on the edge of a bench, table or bed
  • Place the hands palm down, with your fingers pointed backwards.
  • Lean into it a bit to increase the intensity
  • Now, bend the wrists the other way, placing the backs of your hands down
  • Again, lean into it as much or as little as you’d like

4. Seeking out a Physical Therapist

As I stated before, self-stretching and mobilizing the arm, elbow, and wrist can be difficult at times. With the help of a professional, hands-on treatment coupled with tailored at-home exercises can be the most beneficial to this treatment.

So there you go- Hopefully, this cleared up any confusion about if you may or may not be suffering from tennis elbow.

P.S. If you want more help with easing this elbow pain, please fill out this form and make an inquiry about getting physical therapy.


Nick Hunter, PT, DPT

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