Elbow Pain in Athletes

By Bruce Steinberg, MD

Elbow Pain in Athletes- Most Common 

Injuries are a very common part of athletic injuries, and elbow pain in athletes is a common injury. There are many sports that have colloquial names for the commonly associated injuries that  sport. Most people have heard of tennis elbow which refers to pain along the lateral aspect of the elbow with a backhand maneuver. The lateral side of the elbow is the point farthest away from the body with the arm held at the side (tennis elbow will be discussed in more detail later).

The Elbow Joint

Anatomy of Normal Human Arm Bone.

Anatomy of the Elbow Joint.

The elbow is a well-fitted hinged joint which allows for a very small amount of excessive motion or toggle. The bony complex of the elbow allows for two complex motions including elbow flexion and extension as well as pronation and supination. Pronation of the right forearm is the motion used for loosening a screw with a screwdriver, whereas supination is the motion used for tightening a screw with a screwdriver.
A fully functioning elbow is extremely important to facilitate the use of the hand. The complex wide motions of the elbow allow the hand to be placed in space for grasp, pinch, and pushing activities. Injuries of the elbow involve muscles, ligaments, tendons, capsules, bones, and articular surfaces as well as nerves.

In order to diagnose elbow injuries, clinical examination is performed as well as obtaining X-rays and obtaining a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study. MRI has allowed for better visualization of the soft tissues about the elbow joint and has improved our ability to diagnose overuse problems such as tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis). In addition to MRI, minimally invasive surgical procedures have also improved our ability to both treat and diagnose elbow problems.

Sports Related Elbow Injuries


Baseball elbow occurs secondary to stresses placed across the elbow during pitching which cause a traction injury along the medial (the side of the elbow closest to the body when held at the side) aspect of the elbow. This injury can lead to instability of the elbow, leading to a surgical reconstruction. Many youth baseball players who do not take a break from the sport may experience baseball elbow. Many are aware of Tommy John, a former pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who underwent a medial collateral ligament reconstruction for elbow instability for this particular type of problem.

Tennis Elbow

Please watch this informative video on Tennis Elbow

The most common elbow injury that will occur  is lateral epicondylitis.  It can also be caused by repetitive activities that occur in the workplace. Anyone who has had this problem knows that this can be a chronic debilitating problem. It can make it difficult to even perform the small activities of daily living such as lifting a coffee cup. This injury occurs most often in tennis players ages 35 and 50 who play 3-4 times per week.

Causes of Tennis Elbow

Several factors have been attributed to causing tennis elbow including:

  • Heavier, stiffer, and more tightly strung racquets.
  • Incorrect grip size.
  • Metal racquets.
  • Inexperienced players.
  • Poor technique, especially backhand.

Advanced tennis players who warm up, use good technique, and are well conditioned rarely endure this problem. The treatment for tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is similar to many other overuse syndromes. To do this, one must rest the elbow but still maintain cardiovascular fitness. Ice, elevation, and compression also can be helpful along with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications.

Tennis elbow, AKA lateral epicondylitis is a common cause of elbow pain in athletes.

Tennis elbow anatomy.

Physical Therapy for Tennis Elbow

Rehabilitation should include stretching of the muscles that insert at the level of the elbow. In addition, several modalities now available to the therapists have been shown to be helpful including high voltage galvanic electrical stimulation and laser. Certainly changing one’s technique such as a poor backhand in tennis and modifying or improving one’s equipment can be very helpful for elbow pain in athletes.

If after several weeks the above treatment fails to improve the patient’s pain, consideration of an injection with a steroid deep into the extensor tendons that insert at the level of the elbow has been found to be helpful. Many also use a so-called “tennis elbow strap.” Essentially, this is a band that is placed over the forearm region close to the elbow, and by applying force across the muscles reduces abnormal tension of the muscle tendon unit at its origin.

Surgical Intervention for the Elbow

If the above treatments fail and an MRI demonstrates a pathological lesion, consideration of surgical intervention is then undertaken. The surgery includes a small incision with excision of the degenerative tendinous tissue at the level of the elbow. The blood supply to the region is improved by placing small drill holes into the bone. Then normal muscle is rotated from nearby to replace the excised damaged tissue. The rehabilitation post-operatively from this particular procedure takes several months to return to a previous high level of play. The success rate, however, is very high, with above 85% returning to full activity without pain, 12% with improved symptoms but with some pain with vigorous activities, and 3% showing no improvement.

To learn more about tennis elbow, please go to: https://www.joionline.net/library/show/lateral_epicondylitis_tennis_elbow/

The elbow joint is a complex anatomical structure that allows for precise placement of a hand in space. Athletics and many activities of daily living subject the elbow to great stresses that result in a wide variety of injuries. With the recent advances in diagnosis with MRI and with the procedures such as elbow arthroscopy, our ability to diagnose and treat elbow problems has improved considerably in the last few years.

If you would like to learn more about throwing injuries, please watch this video.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Steinberg, please call JOI-2000 or click the photo below.

By: Bruce Steinberg, M.D.

Dr. Bruce Steinberg

Image of Dr. Bruce Steinberg.

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