Tennis elbow is a self-limiting condition, which means it will eventually get better without treatment.
However, it can often last for several weeks or months, because tendons heal slowly. In some cases, tennis elbow can persist for more than a year.
A number of simple treatments can help alleviate the pain of tennis elbow. The most important thing you can do is rest your injured arm and stop doing the activity that caused the problem (see below).
Holding a cold compress, such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel, against your elbow for a few minutes several times a day can help ease the pain.
Invasive treatments, such as surgery, will usually only be considered in severe and persistent cases of tennis elbow, where non-surgical approaches have not been effective.
Avoiding or modifying activities
If you have tennis elbow, you should stop doing activities that strain affected muscles and tendons.
If you use your arms at work to carry out manual tasks, such as lifting, you may need to avoid these activities until the pain in your arm improves.
Alternatively, you may be able to modify the way you perform these types of movements so they do not place strain on your arm.
Talk to your employer about avoiding or modifying activities that could aggravate your arm and make the pain worse.
Painkillers and NSAIDs
As well as tablets, NSAIDs are also available as creams and gels (topical NSAIDs). They are applied directly to a specific area of your body, such as your elbow and forearm.
Topical NSAIDs are often recommended for musculoskeletal conditions, such as tennis elbow, rather than anti-inflammatory tablets. This is because they can reduce inflammation and pain without causing side effects, such as nausea and diarrhoea.
Some NSAIDs are available over the counter without a prescription, while others are only available on prescription. Your GP or pharmacist will be able to recommend a suitable NSAID.
Read more about non-prescription and prescription-only medicines.
Your GP may refer you to a physiotherapist if your tennis elbow is causing more severe or persistent pain. Physiotherapists are healthcare professionals who use a variety of methods to restore movement to injured areas of the body.
Your physiotherapist may use manual therapy techniques, such as massage and manipulation, to relieve pain and stiffness, and encourage blood flow to your arm. They can also show you exercises you can do to keep your arm mobile and strengthen your forearm muscles.
The use of an orthoses – such as a brace, strapping, support bandage or splint – may also be recommended in the short term.
Read more about physiotherapy.
Steroids are a type of medication that contain manmade versions of the hormone cortisol, and are sometimes used to treat particularly painful musculoskeletal problems.
Some people with tennis elbow may be offered steroid injections when other treatments haven't worked.
The injection will be made directly into the painful area around your elbow. You may be given a local anaesthetic first to numb the area and reduce the pain.
Steroid injections are only likely to provide short-term relief and their long-term effectiveness has been shown to be poor. If they are helping, you may be offered up to 3 injections in the same area, with at least a 3 to 6 month gap between them.
Shockwave therapy is a non-invasive treatment, where high-energy shockwaves are passed through the skin to help relieve pain and promote movement in the affected area.
How many sessions you will need depends on the severity of your pain. You may have a local anaesthetic to reduce any pain or discomfort during the procedure.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) states that shockwave therapy is safe, although it can cause minor side effects, including bruising and reddening of skin in the area being treated.
Research shows that shockwave therapy can help improve the pain of tennis elbow in some cases. However, it may not work in all cases, and further research is needed.
Platelet rich plasma (PRP) is a newer treatment that may be offered by a surgeon in hospital to treat tennis elbow.
PRP is blood plasma containing concentrated platelets that your body uses to repair damaged tissue. Injections of PRP have been shown to speed up the healing process in some people but their long-term effectiveness is not yet known.
The surgeon will take a blood sample from you and place it in a machine. This separates the healing platelets so they can be taken from the blood sample and injected into the affected joints. The procedure usually takes about 15 minutes.
Surgery may be recommended as a last resort treatment in cases where tennis elbow is causing severe and persistent pain. The damaged part of the tendon will be removed to relieve the painful symptoms.