What is the process for diagnosing tennis elbow?

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Answered by: Matt, An Expert in the Sports Injuries Category
Tennis elbow is a common injury that affects the tendons in the upper portion of the arm. Although this injury is called tennis elbow, it is an injury that can occur from any overuse of the muscles and tendons of the elbow. Tennis players have a unique swinging pattern that creates inflammation, tenderness and pain on the lateral aspect of the arm and routinely develop small tears in the tendon. Hitting the ball with a backhand motion is the most common way tennis elbow is acquired, hence the name.

Diagnosing tennis elbow can be tricky, but medical professionals will have many clues as to the condition that is presented. It is important to talk with a doctor if pain is experienced as other medical problems can have the same symptoms as tennis elbow and may be more serious. The symptoms may include pain in the elbow that worsen while grabbing items or when a twisting motion is applied. Most patients with tennis elbow will also lose the tightness in their grip and feel as though their arm is weak.

A doctor may order imaging studies, but x-ray films are not very helpful at diagnosing tennis elbow. If tennis elbow is truly suspected, the doctor will usually make his diagnoses with clinical experience and routine examinations. He may press on your arm where the tendon attaches to the humerus and check for pain. He will also have you bend your elbow and wrist, putting you through a variety of positions to see what causes the most pain. If he is still unsure, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, of the elbow may be beneficial. This will show the tears that are thought to be present in patients with tennis elbow. Ultrasound scans can also view images of the elbow and may help with determining the cause of elbow pain. This confirmation will give your doctor the required assurance needed for diagnosing tennis elbow.

After tennis elbow has been diagnosed, your doctor may have you treat the pain with nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory medications. These usually include ibuprofen and aspirin. For most, the diagnosis of tennis elbow does not mean that sports can no longer be played. The techniques used during the game or activity that caused the tennis elbow may need to be tweaked or changed. Many patients can also expect cortisone shots or braces to be worn. If pain is still prevalent six months to a year, surgery of the affected elbow may be required.

The best way to prevent the diagnosis of tennis elbow is to avoid arm motions of a repetitive nature. Ice can always help take elbow swelling down and exercises to increase arm strength and flexibility will also help prevent tennis elbow. A physical therapist or consultant can help guide the exercise routine to assure that the injury is not aggravated or made worse. Quit any motion that causes pain and be sure to talk with a doctor before continuing. Diagnosing tennis elbow is the only way to get on the right path and begin the necessary procedures to get healthy again.


National Center for Biotechnology Information

Occupational Medicine, 2003;53:309-312

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