What is tennis elbow and how do you prevent it?

Amateur players of all ages talk in hushed tones about the dreaded tennis elbow, a condition that can prevent you playing for weeks or even months. Lateral epicondylitis, to give its proper name, can manifest itself in a range of different symptoms: severe pain on the outer side of the elbow, a weak forearm and tender wrists. But what causes it?

First described as “the lawn tennis arm” in an 1883 edition of The Lancet, tennis elbow is essentially a repetitive strain injury (RSI). Players over 40 are particularly prone to the ailment, with women most at risk.

It’s caused when the wrist and elbow are repeatedly strained, inflaming and tearing the musculotendinous area where the forearm muscles meet the lateral epicondyle of the humerus. The tissue becomes irritated, inflamed and can swell up.  

However, tennis elbow isn’t a grisly rite of passage if you play the sport. Most experts agree that it’s regularly caused by poor technique.

The main culprit is a sloppy backhand with a bent wrist: powerful forces radiate up the forearm from the hand when you strike the ball, overloading the delicate tendons in the elbow. Another is simply gripping the racket handle too tightly, especially if it’s not the correct size, leaving you more vulnerable to the shockwaves.  

So how do you prevent tennis elbow? Here are Tennis Talent’s top tips for keeping the joint hale and hearty:

  • Make sure you’ve got the right equipment. Measure your grip size (the centre of your palm to the tip of your ring finger) or feel if you’re holding the handle too hard. Professor Rami Abboud and his team at the Institute of Motion Analysis and Research at Dundee University have identified another way of counteracting the problem: “In tennis players with a predilection for developing tennis elbow, reducing the racket tension should be considered to help reduce the risk of injury.” The greater the tension, the greater the potentially damaging forces travelling up the forearm.
  • Invest in vibration dampeners if you’re worried, as they have been found to ever so slightly reduce the shockwaves. However, they are not a cure-all!
  • Nail your backhand technique. Ensure that your wrist isn’t bent when you strike the ball – it should be straight and firm. Moreover, be aware that, by attempting to add increased topspin, you increase your chances of developing the condition.
  • Focus on your footwork. If you’re regularly out of position when making a shot, you’ll be less likely to strain your wrist.
  • Don’t play with wet and heavy balls. It may sound obvious, but hitting a ball with a soggy thud, instead of a crisp pop, will jar the tendons and muscles near the elbow.
  • Take it easy. The more you play, the more likely it is that you’ll develop tennis elbow. If you feel any pain or discomfort, rest up until you feel comfortable again. Ignoring the telltale signs could result in a more severe injury.
  • Consult a doctor. If the pain is very severe, or if you have chronic tennis elbow, head down to your local surgery and ask what potential treatments are available.

For more information about symptoms and treatment, visit the NHS page regarding tennis elbow.

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