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Tennis elbow can create pain and weakness in the elbow tendons. We look at its common symptoms and how it can be treated.
Common examples may be an increase in computer use (especially if there is a poor ergonomic setup), DIY tasks involving gripping and twisting with the wrist/ hand and sometimes racket sports. Although rackets sports players can develop a common extensor tendinopathy, the majority of individuals who develop symptoms do so because of prolonged, repetitive activities including warehouse or desk-based work, often with a poor ergonomic setup.
Symptoms are aggravated by any activity which requires repeated use of the wrist extensor muscles. Common examples may include working at a computer (keyboard or mouse work) or gripping, lifting, or carrying tasks.
The key features are tenderness directly over the tendon insertion on the lateral bony point of the elbow. There is also pain directly over the tendon when contracting the forearm muscles against resistance (e.g. when gripping or resisting wrist extension).
If there are some particularly stressful tasks such as DIY or racket sports which seem to be aggravating your symptoms, then the common extensor tendon may need 4-6 weeks of relative rest.
If the condition has been triggered by repetitive computer work, changes to your overall sitting position to ensure a neutral elbow and wrist position as well as some specialist keyboard and mouse equipment can significantly reduce the stresses placed on the common extensor tendon:
Appropriate DSE set up
Regular exercises to strengthen the wrist extensor muscles and tendon in the forearm and stretch the flexor muscles:
3×15 repetitions 3-4x per week
5×30 second holds, 2x per day
These are suggested exercises only. If you are at all concerned about whether these exercises are suitable for you or if you experience any pain while doing them, please seek appropriate clinical advice from your GP or Physiotherapist.
Injections may be discussed with individuals who continue to suffer disabling pain (preventing work and leisure activities) and have failed physiotherapy management.
You may be required to attend physiotherapy sessions which is often a highly effective and evidenced based treatment for tennis elbow. Exercises involve gradually strengthening exercises for the forearm muscles which gradually increase the amount of load, thereby strengthening the affected tendon.
In some cases, an operation will be required to release the inflamed tendon, debride it and repair where necessary.
Shoulder and elbow surgery can result in considerable pain and discomfort after the operation. Traditional painkillers are not always effective and have side effects. We usually offer you a local anaesthetic “block” to reduce the pain and discomfort following the procedure and allow early more comfortable physiotherapy (if required). This consists of an injection at the side of your neck onto the nerves that supply your shoulder. The injection itself is fairly painless.
The procedure is carried out before the start of your operation. You will have a small plastic tube placed in your arm (drip). Then you may have some sedation to make you feel relaxed. A small numbing injection in the skin is placed prior to the block needle (which is smaller than a blood-taking needle). Your arm will then start to feel very heavy and numb (a similar sensation to when you have been lying on it). This spreads down the outside of the arm (and spares the inside).
Surgery is then carried out under sedation (you are comfortable, relaxed and either awake or sleeping if you prefer) or occasionally under general anaesthesia (you are unconscious and unaware). If you are awake, you are welcome to watch the procedure on a TV screen, and we will explain to you what is happening. If you require any extra pain relief during the procedure, we can easily give you this through your drip. The block will reduce the amount of painkilling drugs that you will require during and after the operation.
The numbness will usually last for between 8 and 24 hours (depending on anaesthetic mixture used). We will leave your arm in a sling; please protect your arm whilst it is numb.
You will initially experience some ‘pins and needles’ as the block wears off and then some pain. Please prepare for this by taking the painkillers that we provide. Start these before the block wears off and expect to need them regularly for around 48hrs.
Occasionally we may recommend that at the time of the block we also place a small tube (catheter) that is fixed in place and through which we can give you further local anaesthetic to prolong your numbness for a few days. We would recommend this in situations where your pain after the operation is likely to be severe.
Anaesthesia is safe for most people. If your health is not good the risks may be increased. Commoner complications include nausea and sore throat.
Local anaesthetic nerve blocks are generally considered to be safe. There is an approximately 5% (1 in 20) chance that they will fail or not work as well as expected. They tend to cause a small pupil and droopy eyelid temporarily and you may notice a hoarse voice or slight breathlessness.
Rare complications include reactions to the local anaesthetic solutions and nerve injury (the risk of temporary nerve symptoms such as tingling, numbness or weakness for a limited period is around 1 in 100 blocks and the overall risk of permanent injury approximately 1 in 5,000-10,000 injections).
Paracetamol and an anti-inflammatory drug (if suitable for you – usually ibuprofen or diclofenac) are often used in combination. Take these regularly for the first few days.
Your anaesthetist will talk to you about strong painkillers, usually codeine, tramadol, oxycodone or morphine. Take these if your pain is poorly controlled (instructions will be on the packet). Some patients experience light-headedness when taking stronger painkillers; so be careful especially at first (rest up after taking them, don’t carry hot drinks or anything sharp) and take them only to counteract severe discomfort. Nausea and constipation can also occur, so drink plenty of water and increase the fibre in your diet; occasionally laxatives may be required (available from chemists).
If you are discharged on the same day as your operation, there should be someone keeping an eye on you during the first 24-hour period. If the painkillers make you excessively drowsy, then your carer needs to rouse you and ensure you not too sensitive to them.
Emergency contact numbers will be available on your discharge information if you or your carer wishes to talk to a trained member of staff.
Depending on the treatment required you should be able to return home the same day, but your recovery time is dependent on the severity of the injury. Your consultant will advise you and answer any questions you may have.
If a surgical release is considered, this is a generally safe procedure but there are some potential complications you should be aware of. These affect a very small percentage of patients.