It is estimated that as many as one in three people have tennis elbow at any given time (1), and the healing process can be anywhere from several weeks to 2 years.
Despite being a relatively common condition, the resulting pain should not be underestimated – it can prevent you from carrying out even the simplest of day-to-day activities such as cooking and cleaning.
The good news is that, unlike other more complex ‘sports’ injuries, the pain caused by tennis elbow can be relatively simple to manage with non-invasive and easily accessible solutions.
To help you choose which one is right for you, we’ve laid out the most common pain management options below, as well as an alternative solution that offers near-instant pain relief without any side effects.
But before we get to that, it’s important to first understand what tennis elbow is and what causes it…
What is tennis elbow and what causes it?
Formally named lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is the 7th most common sports injury, and as many as half of all people who play racket sports have the musculoskeletal condition.
It is caused when the tendons that attach your elbow to your forearm muscles are overused. If the muscle-tendon units become strained, tiny tears and inflammation can develop on the outside of your elbow (1).
“Think of ligaments and muscle-tendon units like springs,” says William Roberts, sports medicine physician at the University of Minnesota. “The tissue lengthens with stress and returns to its normal length — unless it is pulled too far out of its normal range.”’ (2)
This will result in a pain on the outside of the arm particularly when lifting or bending it, when twisting your forearm (for example to turn a door handle) or when gripping small objects.
When looking at tennis in particular, it seems that this repetitive strain injury is most often caused by hitting tennis balls in the backhand position, though it can also be caused by weak shoulder and wrist muscles, using a tennis racket that is too tightly strung, or hitting heavy, wet balls (3).
Despite its name however, most people who have tennis elbow did not acquire it by playing racket sport at all. In fact, any activity or movement that uses the forearm muscles repetitively could cause it, which includes anything from decorating, plumbing and weight lifting, to fencing, typing or even knitting.
Non-invasive pain management solutions
When looking to treat tennis elbow, the most extreme cases can be offered a long list of options, from steroid injections to surgery. But most of these come with an equally long list of possible side effects, and, in the case of steroid injections, their long-term effectiveness has shown to be poor (4).
Despite tendons healing slowly, tennis elbow is a self-limiting condition, meaning that it will eventually get better without treatment. Therefore, most suffers will shun the idea of invasive procedures and instead turn to non-invasive pain relief to aid their recovery.
(TIP: The first step towards recovery is to properly rest. As tennis elbow is a result of repetitive strain, it’s important you remove the initial cause of the problem before tackling the resulting pain. This doesn’t mean you have to give up moving your arm completely, but avoid sports and heavy work activities wherever possible.)
A cold compress
Cold therapy works by reducing blood flow to a particular area, which can significantly reduce inflammation and swelling that causes pain (5). There are a multitude of ways to apply cold therapy to an affected area, but the most common is using a cold compress in the form of an ice pack or frozen gel.
If you are happy with a homemade alternative, a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel works just as a well. Simply hold this against your elbow for a few minutes several times a day and the pain should ease naturally.
The drawback: Despite being relatively cheap and simple (if you opt for the homemade version), a cold compress only reduces pain while the compress is against the skin, making it a short lived solution which is useless when out and about.
Whilst paracetamol may help reduce pain caused by tennis elbow, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and high-dose aspirin are a better solution, as they can help reduce the inflammation that causes the pain (4).
If you aren’t a fan of taking tablets, NSAIDs are also sold in the form of gels, liquids and patches which you can place directly onto the skin.
The drawback: Taking regular pain relief medication can lead to a number of side effects (including hormonal imbalance, constipation and even addiction) and should not be used long term. What’s more, if you are taking the highest number of doses a day to tackle your tennis elbow pain, this seemingly cheap solution very quickly becomes anything but.
Whilst physiotherapy is often only recommended for the more severe and persistent cases of tennis elbow, there are some exercises that you can do at home to manipulate the problem area and relieve pain and stiffness (without aggravating your forearm any further).
Recommended exercises include; wrist extensor and flexor stretches, wrist curls, wrist rotations and bicep curls (6).
The drawback: Despite offering a free solution that aids in long-term recovery, these exercises simply do not deliver the near-instant pain relief that the other solutions do. They are therefore best to do in addition to some of the other pain management options.
An alternative solution – QTECH Swing Elbow Band
Unlike cold therapy, painkillers and physical therapy, our Swing Elbow band is comfortable to wear, non-invasive and often provides rapid pain relief.
Choosing what’s right for you
When it comes to tackling tennis elbow, there’s no right or wrong way. Ultimately, it will depend on what feels right for you, and this is often achieved through trial and error.
Some people may decide to try each of the above techniques one at a time to see which is most effective, whilst others may try a mix of solutions in the hope of a faster recovery.
- NHS. Overview: Tennis Elbow. [Online] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/tennis-elbow/
- The Orthopaedic Institute. The Seven Most Common Sports Injuries. [Online] https://www.orthopaedicinstitute.com/new/the-seven-most-common-sports-injuries.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. Lateral Epicondylitis (Tennis Elbow). [Online] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/lateral-epicondylitis-tennis-elbow.
- NHS. Treatment: Tennis Elbow. [Online] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/tennis-elbow/treatment/ .
- Healthline. Treating Pain with Heat and Cold. [Online] https://www.healthline.com/health/chronic-pain/treating-pain-with-heat-and-cold#cold-therapy.
- Great Western Hospitals. Tennis Elbow Exercises: Stretch and Strengthen. [Online] https://www.gwh.nhs.uk/media/186178/tennis-elbow-exercises.pdf.