If you feel pain as you leap to punch an easy floater for the game-winning volley on the tennis court, you may have a case of tennis elbow. But it's not just tennis players that experience this overuse injury — other activities, from carpentry to using a computer mouse, can lead to it. Regardless of the cause, wearing a tennis elbow brace (aka a counterforce brace) can help ease symptoms.
Here's more on other treatment options you can explore with your family physician, as well as tennis elbow symptoms and what to look for in an arm brace.
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What Is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow — which is also known by the more official term lateral epicondylitis, according to the Mayo Clinic — is "chronic irritation, tightness and scaring of the finger and wrist extensor tendons and (possibly) muscles that insert into the outside of the elbow," explains Alex McDonald, MD, a family physician with Kaiser Permanente.
Tennis elbow is most commonly seen in adults ages 30 to 50 years of age, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
And, despite its name, you don't need to play tennis to develop this condition. Golfers can experience it, as can people in certain professions that require intense repetitive motions, such as painting, carpentry work, butchering and even jobs where it's common to wield a computer mouse for hours at a time, per the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of Tennis Elbow
If you've got a case of tennis elbow, it's probably due to overuse, whether because of a sport you play or a job you hold. Some of the most common symptoms, per the Cleveland Clinic, include the following:
- Pain radiating from the outer elbow that extends to the wrist
- Discomfort when twisting or bending the arm, like when turning a doorknob
- Stiffness in the arm and elbow
- Weakness or shaking, as when holding or gripping a cup
- Swelling at the elbow joint
Treatment for Tennis Elbow
The treatment for tennis elbow depends on the severity of your particular case. These are the most common options to address the pain, according to Dr. McDonald:
- Daily stretching: "This is the first line of treatment, along with eccentric exercises which work to strengthen and lengthen the tendon," Dr. McDonald explains.
- Rest: Either stop or decrease the activities triggering tennis elbow, per the AAOS. You may need to do this for several weeks.
- Wearing a brace: Full recovery can take months, but with rest and careful positioning of the arm in a quality brace, particularly at night, you should feel less pain.
- Massage: Targeted massage and other manual therapies can also help, Dr. McDonald says.
- Acupuncture: "If these other options don't work, I recommend dry needling to poke the tendon, stimulate microscopic bleeding and break up scar tissue to promote healing," Dr. McDonald says.
- Cortisone shot: As a last resort, very occasionally Dr. McDonald will suggest a cortisone injection. "But keep in mind that this offers only temporary relief and does carry a higher risk of tendon damage and skin atrophy," he warns.
Up to 95 percent of people find these nonsurgical tactics meaningful, according to the AAOS.
Do Tennis Elbow Braces Work?
Studies point to the merits of using a tennis brace.
For instance, a February 2019 study in Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery found that counterforce braces may reduce pain in the short term (from 2 to 12 weeks) and may improve overall function in the long term (26 weeks).
And, while physiotherapy interventions may lead to better results, counterforce braces "[are] a reasonable strategy to alleviate pain over the short term," per a meta-analysis of 17 studies published in July 2020 in the journal Prosthetics and Orthotics International.
How to Choose the Right Brace
There are many simple wrist and elbow strap braces on the market and while fitting one property doesn't require a physical therapy appointment, it's not a bad idea, Dr. McDonald says. "I also recommend that folks be evaluated by their family physical to ensure the correct diagnosis too," he adds.
Use a tennis brace as directed (either on the packaging, or by your physician or physical therapist).
The tennis elbow strap should sit about one inch below your elbow. Place the pressure pad directly over the sore spot and tighten until it feels snug yet comfortable.
Here's more information to help you choose the right brace for your needs.
- Try a few: "I've found wrist braces are more effective for this pain than elbow ones, but see what works best for you," Dr. McDonald says. Your family physician can also offer advice.
- Consider the design: Seek braces that are circular, will fit around your forearm and can be tightened, per Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute. Braces should have a pad on the inner surface.
- Place it properly: It should be about an inch below your elbow. The brace's pad rests between the top and outside edge of your forearm (wiggle your fingers to note muscle movement — this is your target). Then, you'll want it to be snug, but no so tight that you feel tingling or numbness.
The Best Tennis Elbow Arm Braces
Aim to consult with your doctor or a physical therapist to choose the right brace for your particular body. Here are a few you might consider for tennis elbow pain:
- SENTEQ brace ($17, Amazon) — The wide design on this arm-band strap is easy to adjust and features breathable supportive fabric. It also has a gel pad on the inside for extra comfort .
- Bodyprox brace ($15, Amazon) — It's more of a sleeve than a strap-like brace, but this pick offers the same compression for tennis elbow pain. We also love the sweat-wicking fabric and super elastic construction, which means it won't slide down your arm when serving .
- Vive ice pack ($29, Amazon) — Chose from refreshing cold or soothing heat — this pick has both options. Freeze or warm up the gel inserts for targeted therapy where you need it most .
Should You Wear Your Tennis Elbow Brace All the Time?
"As part of a comprehensive stretching and strengthening routine, bracing can be very helpful to reduce aggravating activities," Dr. McDonald says.
He recommends wearing it at night when it's more difficult to be aware of your wrist and elbow position while you're snoozing (adjust your brace so it's snug while you sleep, but not overly tight).
Over-the-counter pain relief can also help with pain. Try acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), per AAOS.
You can also try wearing a compression sleeve or Ace wrap, Dr. McDonald says. These will help "to support the elbow and limit aggravating activity." It's also smart to keep a backup strap handy in your tennis bag in case you experience a flare-up.
The key to seeing improvement, notes Dr. McDonald, is stretching the affected area and working to make it stronger. "Without this, other remedies have limited utility."
But most of all, be patient. "There's no one solution that works for everybody so I often suggest trying several options," Dr. McDonald says.
For tennis players – and other athletes — improperly fitted equipment could increase your risk of developing tennis elbow, according to AAOS. A racquet with a smaller head may help. Or use a stiffer racquet that's strung more loosely, per AAOS.
Frequently Asked Questions About Tennis Elbow
Still curious about treating tennis elbow and how the healing process works? We've got answers:
How Can You Get Rid of Chronic Tennis Elbow?
A case of chronic tennis elbow may mean a trip to the operating room.
"The longer the tightness and irritation continues, the harder it may be to treat, requiring more aggressive intervention and, in very rare situations, surgery may be necessary," Dr. McDonald says.
Your best bet: Catch it early. Be aware of the symptoms and don't ignore the pain or try to play through it.
How Long Does Tennis Elbow Take to Heal?
If caught early, "tennis elbow can be easily treated within days to weeks," Dr. McDonald says. Still, some cases may take several months and even more than a year to completely heal.
Is It True That Tennis Elbow Never Completely Heals?
There's good news on the healing front. The vast majority of those with tennis elbow do get better (and without surgery) and are cleared to resume their normal activities, per the Cleveland Clinic. That said, symptoms can linger for six to 18 months.
What Happens if You Don't Treat Tennis Elbow?
Left untreated, your tennis game won't improve and you could be in for a great deal of discomfort. "Pain and weakness is often the worst outcome here, without major consequences, but tennis elbow can end up becoming very painful and limiting to your activity," Dr. McDonald says.
Is It Better to Keep Your Affected Elbow Straight or Bent?
Movement can equal healing in this case. "I don't recommend immobilization in any position, whether bent or straight, so keep up the daily stretching as working on your range of motion is key to recovery," Dr. McDonald says.
- Mayo Clinic: "Tennis elbow"
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Tennis Elbow: (Lateral Epicondylitis)"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)"
- Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute: "Bracing Yourself…For Tennis Elbow"
- Prosthetics and Orthotics International: "The effects of counterforce brace on pain in subjects with lateral elbow tendinopathy: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials"
- Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery: "Counterforce bracing of lateral epicondylitis: a prospective, randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.