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What is Tennis Elbow?

Cutaway view of elbow showing lateral epicondyle, extensor muscles and spot of inflamed tissue in the tendon

Image of woman holding her elbow
Repeated twisting of a screwdriver can cause problems over time.

Tennis elbow (also called lateral epicondylitis) is the gradual break down of the tendon around the bony knob (lateral epicondyle) on the outer side of the elbow. It occurs when the tissue that attaches muscle to the bone becomes irritated and somtimes inflamed.

Your lateral epicondyle

The muscles that allow you to straighten your fingers and rotate your lower arm and wrist are called the extensor muscles.  These muscles extend from the outer side of your elbow to your wrist and fingers. A cord-like fiber called a tendon attaches the extensor muscles to the elbow. Overuse or an accident can cause tissue in the tendon to become inflamed, injured, or degenerated.


Playing a racket sport can cause tennis elbow. So can doing anything that involves extending your wrist or rotating your forearm, such as:

  • Twisting a screwdriver

  • Hammering

  • Painting

  • Llifting heavy objects with your palm down

With age, the tissue may become injured or irritated more easily.


Symptoms generally develop over time. The most common symptom of tennis elbow is pain or burning on the outer side of the elbow and down the forearm. You may have pain all the time or only when you lift things. The elbow may also swell. And it may hurt to grip things, turn your hand, or swing your arm.


The road to healing

To prevent a flare-up after treatment, you may need to change the way you do some things. Gripping with the palm up, lifting heavy objects with both hands, or varying activities throughout the day will help reduce stress on the tendon.

Online Medical Reviewer: Joseph, Thomas N., MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Sather, Rita, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/9/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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