Pickleball Elbow: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention Tips

Est. Reading: 5 minutes

Pickleball is generally a safe sport, but some players can get hurt, too. Like tennis, this sport involves repetitive arm swinging, which can cause injuries such as pickleball elbow, also known as tennis elbow.

But what exactly is pickleball elbow? How will you know if you have one? How can it be treated? These are only some questions that this guide will answer, along with some preventive tips. So, let’s get started.

What is Pickleball Elbow (Tennis Elbow)?

Known in the medical field as lateral epicondylitis, pickleball elbow is a type of tendinitis that causes pain in a person’s external part of the elbow. Tendinitis (sometimes spelled tendonitis) is inflammation of the thick fibrous cords (tendons) that attach muscle to bone. This pain can travel and reach the patient’s forearm and wrist. Tendonitis can also occur in a person’s heels, knees, and shoulders.

Causes of Pickleball Elbow

Lateral epicondylitis is caused by repeated stress or trauma on the elbow tendons (left or right). In pickleball, this medical condition is usually due to several factors, including:

  • Weak shoulder and wrist muscles
  • Improper playing techniques
  • Overuse
  • Heavier paddles
  • Shorter paddles
  • Tighter paddle grip
  • Frequent hitting of wet balls

Contrary to what some people think, pickleball elbow (tennis elbow) occurs not only in pickleball and tennis players. In fact, most people affected by this condition do not play these two sports at all. Since any repetitive movement can cause this health problem, it is also common to carpenters, chainsaw operators, dentists, and weightlifters. 

According to an article at WebMD, pickleball elbow is more common in people aged 30 and 60. Nonetheless, anyone with the risk factors can suffer from this elbow injury. Moreover, lateral epicondylitis can get worse over time if left untreated and the patient continuously does activities that cause pain. 

Tennis Elbow Symptoms

The primary symptom if you have tennis elbow is when you feel pain and tenderness in the lateral epicondyle, the bony knob (or bump) on the outer side of your elbow. This pain can be mild to severe, and you may feel it while doing the following activities:

  • Lifting things, including small objects
  • Raising your hands
  • Doing a handshake
  • Leaning your elbow on tables or chairs
  • Opening the door
  • Holding tightly to things

You may also notice mild swelling of your elbow or difficulties moving your arm. Sometimes, you may feel intense pain at night, which can make sleeping difficult. Most importantly, your grip gets weaker as days go by. Yet, some of these symptoms resemble other medical issues. Therefore, consult a doctor for proper diagnosis.

Lateral Epicondylitis Treatment

If there’s one good thing about Lateral epicondylitis, it can be treated. The treatments vary, depending on the severity of the problem. It includes non-surgical and surgical treatments. Therefore, treating pickleball elbow is best when the symptoms are just starting to show. Below are some common ways to treat tennis elbow:

Mild Cases

  • Rest and stop activities that trigger the pain
  • Ice pack (to reduce pain and swelling)
  • Over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen

Continuous Pain

If the pain continues, your healthcare provider may recommend any or all of the following:

  • Wearing a special brace
  • Using elbow splints
  • Physical therapy, which could include ultrasound tests
  • Rehabilitation exercises
  • Undergo acupuncture
  • Steroid injections
  • Platelet-rich plasma

If your condition does not heal in 6-12 months, your doctor may recommend open surgery. It involves removing the inflamed tendon and diseased muscle and reattaching healthy ones or stitching to other tendons. An option is elbow arthroscopy, which involves inserting a small camera into your elbow joint so the surgeon can better examine the problem.

But don’t worry; tennis elbow surgery has a very low complication rate. Patients are given anesthesia and are likely awake during the operation. Most are outpatient cases; they can go home on the same day and resume their regular activities within a few weeks. In rare cases, some fully recover 4 to 6 months after the surgery.

Can I Still Play Pickleball After the Surgery?

Yes, you can play pickleball again upon the approval of your surgeon. Many players claim to return to the court 3-4 months after fully recovering. However, your doctor will likely advise you to change your playing techniques, especially your grip and swing. If you do not follow, you must change your sport or can never play again.

How Can I Prevent Having Pickleball Elbow?

If you’re serious about pickleball, you should protect yourself and avoid having a tennis elbow. There are several ways to prevent it without hurting your wallet. All you need is to change some habits, self-discipline, and a lot of patience. Here are some valuable tips:

Change Playing Techniques

The best way to prevent tennis elbow in pickleball is to stop doing the activities that cause it. But because you need to swing when hitting the paddle, you must change how you do it. Avoid using your wrist too much when hitting a fast return. If possible, use both hands or alternatively. Better yet, have an experienced player or pickleball coach who can guide you through and help fix your strokes.

Use Comfortable Paddles

Pickleball paddles can be categorized based on their weight—lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight. Heavyweight paddles are ideal for generating power but may cause tennis elbow, especially if you are a beginner. On the other hand, lightweight paddles are thought to be better but can create vibrations. Hence, the midweight ones may be the best choice. For complete details, read our Pickleball Paddle Weight Guide.

Find Your Paddle Grip Size

In addition to weight and good shock absorbency, choose a paddle appropriate for your grip. If your paddle grip is loose, you need extra force to hold it. If it’s too tight, it can cause discomfort, and changing grips will be more challenging. To find the best grip for you, you should first know how to measure your paddle grip size. There are three easy ways to do it. For the complete tutorial, check out our Pickleball Paddle Grip Size Guide.

Elbow Strength Exercises

There are a lot of simple exercises to keep your arm and elbow strong. It includes finger and wrist stretching, towel twisting, ball squeezing, forearm strengthening, or using a light dumbbell. As you can see, you can do all of them at home and without expensive tools. However, it’s always best to consult your physical therapist first.

Final Thoughts

Understanding pickleball elbow helps you know how to treat and avoid it. Once you ignore the pain, it will get worse. Follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations and rest if you must. If you’re new to the sport, watch how experienced players play. If possible, hire a coach so you know the proper techniques for you.

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