Recently, I had a patient come to the clinic with “Tennis elbow.” The patient was an avid pickle-ball player and bowler who reported that she goes “full-speed” with any activity that she participates in. During palpation, the patient presented with pain and tenderness to the common extensor tendon. Her grip strength was 50% of the opposite side and painful. She also reported similar symptoms 5 months ago, during which she got a cortisone shot to improve her symptoms for a short while.
So what is tennis elbow?
Lateral Epicondylitis, commonly referred to as “Tennis Elbow” is defined by WebMD as “a type of tendinitis — swelling of the tendons — that causes pain in the elbow and arm.” The suffix “-itis” means inflammation and “epicondyle” is a bone. Therefore, if you are suffering from lateral epicondylitis, you are suffering from inflammation of a bone and if you read the treatment options online, you would likely be inclined to try all the usual traditional interventions for tendinitis: rest, ice, and anti-inflammatories.
Because the pain associated from this condition has a high correlation with repetitive activities (i.e. job, sports, etc), often times rest isn’t a viable option. That leaves ice and anti-inflammatories. As with the case above, bowling season didn’t end for another 6 weeks and she had commitments on playing pickle-ball for 2-3x/week, so ice and anti-inflammatories would likely not be enough. And, If you follow the path of attempted rest, ice, and anti-inflammatories long-enough, you will likely see why this is one of the more frustrating conditions for both patients and clinicians alike.
Lateral epicondlyitis is characterized by pain over the outer aspect of the elbow. Pain and symptoms typically arise from repetitive gripping, heavy lifting, work-related tasks (auto-mechanic, plumber, etc), and sport-specific activities, most notably racquet sports such as tennis, or as in this case, pickle-ball and bowling.
Let’s assume we have already done a differential diagnosis to rule out other pathology and are led back to the elbow. The problem with lateral epicondylitis is that it seems to be a poorly named condition. The condition more commonly involves a soft tissue injury to the extensor tendon, which can be correlated in the clinic with pain and tenderness upon palpation to the extensor tendon. Although it may be possible, swelling typically isn’t present.
Also, consider that studies on lateral epicondylitis have failed to show the presence of inflammatory cells, but rather the presence of dense populations of fibroblasts, vascular hyperplasia, and disorganized collagen that may lead to microtears. More simply, the condition seems more related to an “-osis” rather than an “-itis.” And more commonly the extensor tendon, and not the lateral epicondyle.
Consider that tendinitis is associated with pain and swelling. Tendinosis is more of a process—it’s more like a chronic irritation at the tendon-bone interface. During tendinosis, with repetitive trauma, a decrease in blood supply to the tendon occurs. Decreased blood supply will lead to a decrease in tissue oxygenation. A reduction in tissue oxygenation leads to tendon degeneration and as the tendon degenerates, it becomes weaker, which leads to microtears. It’s a degenerative process. It’s like the cord of your iphone being pulled and twisted so many times that the cable starts to become weaker and you have to shimmy it just to get a good charge going. After more bending, twisting and irritation to that iphone cable it starts to frey and loses its ability to function properly and you need to fix it.
Next post, we will discuss some treatment options for extensor tendinosis.