Lateral Epicondylitis Treatment & Management

Updated: Oct 30, 2018
  • Author: Bryant James Walrod, MD; Chief Editor: Craig C Young, MD  more...
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Treatment

Treatment Options

There are numerous treatment options, but no one single treatment is completely effective.

Watchful waiting

Smidt et al noted a greater improvement in pain symptoms from lateral epicondylitis at 52 weeks when employing watchful waiting relative to the administration of corticosteroid injections. [10] In addition, watchful waiting was about equally as effective as physiotherapy at 52 weeks. However, corticosteroid injections were significantly better than both watchful waiting and physiotherapy at 6 weeks. [10]

In 2006, Bisset et al investigated treating lateral epicondylitis with physiotherapy, corticosteroid injection, or watchful waiting in 198 individuals with symptoms for greater than 6 weeks. [1] Outcomes were global improvement in symptoms, pain-free grip force, and assessment of severity of complaints. There were significant reductions in all outcomes measured for corticosteroid injections over watchful waiting at 6 weeks. In the corticosteroid group, 78% reported success, versus 27% for those in the watchful waiting group. Corticosteroid injections also outperformed physiotherapy at 6 weeks, with 65% of the physiotherapy group having success versus 78% of the corticosteroid group. Physiotherapy was superior to watchful waiting at 6 weeks. However, the improvement in symptoms with corticosteroid injections was not sustained at 52 weeks.

At 52 weeks, the injection group was significantly worse on all outcomes compared with the physiotherapy group and worse on 2 of 3 measures compared with watchful waiting. Finally, at 52 weeks, there was not much of a difference in comparing physiotherapy to watchful waiting. Fifty-nine of 63 much improved or completely recovered in the physiotherapy group, versus 56 of 62 in the watchful waiting group. This study again elucidates that corticosteroid injections may have some benefit in the short term, but the long-term benefits are definitely lacking in the treatment of lateral epicondylitis. Physiotherapy demonstrated improvement versus watchful waiting at 5 weeks, with only slight improvement at 52 weeks. [1]

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs  ( NSAIDS)

Topical NSAIDS such as diclofenac may offer some short-term relief. [11, 12] In a study with oral diclofenac, this agent improved short-term pain and function, but there was no difference noted when comparing naproxen and placebo for pain reduction in lateral epicondylitis. Corticosteroid injection demonstrated greater benefit at 4 weeks when compared with NSAIDS, but no long-term differences were seen.

A Cochrane review in 2013 looked at 17 comparisons of 759 participants and noted that “There remains limited evidence from which to draw firm conclusions about the benefits or harms of topical or oral NSAIDs in treating lateral elbow pain. Although data from five placebo-controlled trials suggest that topical NSAIDs may be beneficial in improving pain (for up to 4 weeks), non-normal distribution of data and other methodological issues precluded firm conclusions.” [13]

Corticosteroid injection

One study demonstrated administering a corticosteroid injection as having superior efficacy in pain relief at 6 weeks when compared with physiotherapy that consisted of ultrasound, massage, and exercise. However, the authors noted that corticosteroid injection was not as effective as physiotherapy at 12 weeks. [10] Smidt et al found that administering a corticosteroid injection decreased pain in lateral epicondylitis at 6 weeks but not beyond that period.

A 2012 study looked at 297 patients with lateral epicondylitis and found that individuals treated with structured physical therapy had less pain than patients treated with corticosteroid injections or NSAIDs and experienced better function than those treated with corticosteroid injections. The intervention group had a lower recurrence and fewer sick leave days at the time of the visit to the healthcare center. [14]

In another study, when corticosteroid injection was compared with arm bracing, the use of a corticosteroid injection demonstrated decreased pain at 2 weeks, but there was no difference noted at 6 weeks. [15] There was also no significant difference noted in the type of steroid that was injected.

A study by Gosens et al compared corticosteroid with platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections in patients who had refractory lateral epicondylitis symptoms for longer than 6 months. Primary outcome measures were pain and daily use of the elbow. One hundred patients blindly received either PRP or corticosteroid injection, followed by a similar standard rehabilitation protocol. Success was defined as a 25% reduction in pain on a visual analogue scale (VAS) score or on a disabilities of the arm, shoulder, and hand (DASH) score.

At 4 weeks, the corticosteroid injection group reported a 32.8% improvement in VAS scores and a 25.8% improvement in DASH scores. At 4 weeks, the PRP group had a 21% improvement in VAS scores and a 15.7% improvement in DASH scores. Both had similar improvements at 8 weeks. The PRP group had a greater and more sustained symptom improvement; the individuals were followed for longer period of time. At 12 weeks, the PRP group demonstrated a 44.8% improvement in VAS and a 43% improvement in DASH scores. At 12 weeks, the corticosteroid group reported improvements of 32.8% in VAS and 29.8% in DASH scores. These trends continued at 6 months, 12 months, 1 year, and 2 years. The PRP group continued to show improvement in VAS and DASH scores at 6 months, 12 months, and 2 years. The corticosteroid group had less successful symptom resolution the longer the individuals were followed. [16]

A study by Lebiedziński et al found that betamethasone injections give more rapid improvement, but the therapeutic effect is longer lasting in the autologous conditioned plasma group. [4]

In summary, administering a corticosteroid injection is effective in reducing pain from lateral epicondylitis in the short term, but this procedure may not be as effective in the long term.

Counterforce bracing

Counterforce braces are used in an attempt to reduce the tension forces on the wrist extensor tendons, and these orthotics may be superior to lateral epicondyle bandages in reducing resting pain. [17] The brace should be applied firmly approximately 10 cm distal to the elbow joint. Use of a counterforce brace may decrease pain and increase grip strength at 3 weeks in individuals with lateral epicondylitis. [18] However, some authors believe that no firm conclusions can be drawn from the use of orthotics in the treatment of lateral epicondylitis. [19] Counterforce braces are possibly inferior in the treatment of lateral epicondylitis when compared with topical NSAIDS and corticosteroid injections.

Jafarian et al compared 3 common types of orthoses for their effect on grip strength in patients with lateral epicondylosis. [20] In a randomized controlled laboratory study in 52 patients, maximum and pain-free grip strength were assessed with the patient wearing an elbow strap orthosis, an elbow sleeve orthosis, a wrist splint, or a placebo orthosis. Use of the elbow strap and sleeve orthoses resulted in an immediate and equivalent increase in pain-free grip strength (P< 0.02); consequently, the researchers suggest that either of these types of orthosis may be used. [20] The wrist splint provided no immediate improvement in either pain-free or maximum grip strength.

A study in 2008 by Altan and Kanat compared treating 50 individuals with symptoms of lateral epicondylitis for less than 12 months with either a typical counterforce forearm brace versus treatment with a 10-15° dorsiflexion wrist splint. [2] Parameters of pain at rest and with extension, sensitivity, hand grip strength, and a subjective response to treatment were measured at baseline, 2 weeks, and 6 weeks. No formal physical therapy or home exercise program was recommended. The counterforce brace group demonstrated significant reduction in pain at rest and during movement at 2 weeks, while sensitivity and grip strength were not changed at 2 weeks.

At 6 weeks, significant improvement was noted in all parameters with the implementation of counterforce bracing. The wrist splint group demonstrated improvement in all parameters measured at 2 and 6 weeks except for sensitivity at 2 weeks. Comparison of the 2 groups showed significant improvement in resting pain at 2 weeks for the wrist splint group over the counterforce brace group. No other significant differences were noted between the 2 groups. This study was limited by lack of a control group. In summary, all patients improved with either counterforce elbow bracing or wrist splint bracing at 2 and 6 weeks. Wrist splint bracing, however, demonstrated an advantage on some measured subjective and objective parameters. [2]

In 2009, a study looked at the immediate effect on grip strength in treating lateral epicondylitis with 3 different kinds of orthoses, a counterforce elbow strap, a counterforce elbow sleeve, and a wrist splint versus a placebo control brace proximal to the elbow. This involved 52 subjects with symptoms of a mean duration of 18 weeks. The counterforce strap and sleeve provided an improvement in pain free grip strength; however, there were no differences between the 2 counterforce braces. The wrist splint did not change pain free grip strength compared with placebo. [3]

In 2010, Garg et al randomized 42 patients with acute symptoms of lateral epicondylitis to either a wrist extension splint or a counterforce brace. Again, there was no control, nonbraced, group. Ice and home stretching exercised were recommended to both groups. Clinical outcomes were measured at the time of enrollment and at 6 weeks of follow up. Both groups overall improved at the 6-week mark. Specifically looking at some of the outcomes measured however, pain was significantly more reduced in the wrist splint group than the counterforce brace group.

At 6 weeks, significant improvement was noted in all parameters with the implementation of counterforce bracing. The wrist splint group demonstrated improvement in all parameters measured at 2 and 6 weeks except for sensitivity at 2 weeks. Comparison of the 2 groups showed significant improvement in resting pain at 2 weeks for the wrist splint group over the counterforce brace group. No other significant differences were noted between the 2 groups. This study was limited by lack of a control, nonbraced, group. In summary, all patients improved with either counterforce elbow bracing or wrist splint bracing at 2 and 6 weeks. Wrist splint bracing, however, demonstrated an advantage on some measured subjective and objective parameters. [21]

Extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ECSWT)

There has been little evidence demonstrating a benefit in using ECSWT to treat patients with lateral epicondylitis. [22]

A study Aydin et al reported that both extracorporeal shock-wave therapy and wrist-extensor splints showed improvements in pain and handgrip strength in 67 patients with lateral epicondylitis. [44]

 

Ultrasound-guided percutaneous radiofrequency thermal lesioning

In August of 2011, Lin et al published a study looking at a novel method of treating chronic refractory lateral epicondylitis with ultrasound-guided percutaneous radiofrequency thermal lesioning (RTL). [9] They enrolled 34 patients (35 elbows) with symptoms of lateral epicondylitis for greater than 6 months in whom previous interventions had failed. Patients were examined at baseline and then at 1, 3, and 6 months after the index procedure. Outcomes measures were VAS at rest and activity, QuickDASH scores, and the Modified Mayo Clinic Performance Index (MMCPI) for the elbow.

Significant pain reductions were noted at the 1, 3, and 6 months of follow up. Grip strength improved significantly at 3 and 6 months of follow up but not significantly at the 1 month of follow up. DASH and MMCPI scores improved significantly at all follow-up measurements. Eighty-five percent of the patients reported pain relief at the 1-month follow-up. Ninety-one percent of the subjects reported good-to-excellent satisfaction results at 6 months. Five patients needed a repeat procedure because of unsatisfactory symptom relief, and, of these, 4 reported satisfactory results after the second procedure. No change was noted on ultrasound in the thickness of the origin of the extensor tendon. [9]

Laser therapy

Low-level laser treatments have not been proven to be an effective method to treat patients with pain from lateral epicondylitis. [23]

Acupuncture

Systemic reviews and meta-analyses have demonstrated some evidence of short-term improvement in pain reduction at 2 to 8 weeks in patients suffering from lateral epicondylar pain. [19, 24] However, other studies demonstrated insufficient evidence to recommend its use. [12]

Autologous blood

Autologous blood injections are thought to initiate an inflammatory process and promote improved healing of degenerative tissue via the relatively atraumatic injection itself as well as providing necessary cellular and humoral mediators to induce a healing cascade. [25] Edwards and Calandruccio studied 28 people in whom conservative therapy had failed to resolve symptoms from their lateral epicondylitis. [26] They were given a cock-up wrist splint and told to avoid any other bracing or physical therapy for 3 weeks. A home exercise program was initiated at week 3. The study demonstrated 22 (79%) of 28 of the patients had a reduction in Nirschl pain scores over 9.5 months after autologous blood injection therapy. [26] Most often, this occurred after only one injection. However, this study is limited as it lacked a control group. [10]

A study by Connnell et al in 2005 looked at ultrasound-guided autologous blood injections as a treatment for 35 individuals with lateral epicondylitis confirmed on MRI. These patients had symptoms for a median of almost 14 months and conservative therapy had not been successful. Outcomes were measured as reduction in VAS and Nirschl pain scores at 4 weeks and 6 months. No formal physical therapy or home exercise program was recommended. Autologous blood injections demonstrated significant improvements in VAS and Nirschl pain measurements at 4 weeks and at 6 months. Autologous blood injections also demonstrated statistical improvements in tendon thickness, interstitial cleft formation, echoic foci, hyperechoic change, and neovascularity. [11]

A small study was recently published comparing autologous blood, corticosteroid, and saline injection in the treatment of lateral epicondylitis of less than 6 months’ duration in 28 individuals. Patients were followed for 6 months after the injections, and the outcomes measured were reduction in DASH scores and pain- and disease-specific functional scores. Participants were not given any formal physical therapy regimen or orthotics. They were simply given a standard sheet of stretching exercises to which compliance was not measured. All 3 injections caused a decrease in DASH scores at 2 weeks and 2 months and a significant decrease at 6 months; however, there were no significant differences between the 3 groups. In addition, patient reported scores of pain and function also improved among all 3 groups. [12]

An August 2010 study by Kazremi et al performed a single blinded randomized clinical trial comparing autologous blood injections to corticosteroid injection in 60 individuals with lateral elbow tendinopathy during the past year. [15] Bracing, physical therapy, or anti-inflammatory medications were not allowed during the duration of the study.

Outcomes were measurement of VAS pain scale, DASH questionnaire, modified Nirschl pain scores, maximum grip strength, and pain pressure threshold. Short-term follow-up was ascertained at 4- and 8-week intervals. Corticosteroid injections demonstrated improvements at 4 weeks in all outcome scores except pain pressure threshold. There was no significant improvement from 4-8 weeks in the steroid group for any of the outcomes except a decrease in limb pain and a worsening of grip strength. The autologous blood group demonstrated statistically significant improvements in all outcomes measured at 4 and 8 weeks. Autologous blood injections demonstrated superiority to corticosteroid injections at 4 and 8 weeks in all parameters measured. [15]

In 2010, Ozturan et al performed a 3-armed randomized trial of 60 patients with symptoms consistent with lateral epicondylitis for greater than 6 months with no previous physical therapy in the past 3 months to a corticosteroid injection, autologous blood injection, or extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT). [27] Outcomes measured were Thomsen provocative test scores, upper extremity functional scores, and maximal grip strength. Assessment was at 4, 12, 26, and 52 weeks. Sixteen of the 20 patients in the autologous blood group received a second injection at 6 weeks.

In this study, at 4 weeks, the corticosteroid group had a significant improvement in a functional score and Thomsen provocative tests over both the autologous blood group and the ESWT group. There was no difference between the autologous blood group and the ESWT at 4 weeks. There was no significant difference in these tests at the 12-week mark. Following patterns from other studies, the corticosteroid group performed less well the longer that the patients were followed. There was a statistically significant improvement for the autologous blood and ESWT groups compared with the corticosteroid groups at the 26- and 52-week follow-up appointments for functional scores and Thomsen provocative tests.

Grip strength was also assessed at the same time intervals and noted an improvement for the corticosteroid group at 4 weeks compared with autologous blood and ESWT. There was no difference noted in grip strength at 12 weeks between the three groups. ESWT performed better at the 26-week follow-up with respect to grip strength when compared with autologous blood and corticosteroid injections. At 52 weeks, there was no significant difference between the three groups with respect to grip strength. At 52 weeks, the success rate for corticosteroid injections was 50%, compared with 83% for autologous blood injections and 89% for ESWT treatments.

This study supported the idea the corticosteroid injections can be helpful for temporary and short term improvement in chronic lateral epicondylitis patients, but that autologous blood and ESWT tend to have more lasting improvements. [28]

A very small study in 2013 also demonstrated effectiveness of autologous blood injections for the treatment of chronic lateral epicondylitis. However, the patients were placed in a long arm cast for three weeks after the injection. Long arm cast immobilization is not the standard of care after proinflammatory injections. [29]

Platelet rich plasma (PRP)

A systematic review and meta-analysis by Chen et al reported that platelet-rich plasma may reduce pain associated with lateral epicondylitis and rotator cuff injuries. [45]  Another study demonstrated significantly reduced pain when treating chronic elbow tendinosis with buffered platelet rich plasma. Mishra and Pavelko evaluated 140 patients with elbow epicondylar pain; 20 patients continued to consider surgical intervention after conservative therapy failed to resolve their symptoms. [30] These patients were then administered either a single percutaneous injection of platelet-rich plasma or bupivacaine (control group). At 8 weeks after therapy, the authors demonstrated a 60% pain improvement in the group who received the platelet-rich plasma compared with a 16% pain improvement in the control group. [30] At 6 months and final follow-up (mean, 25.6 mo; range, 12-38 mo), the patients who had received the platelet-rich plasma continued to report significant pain reduction.

A study comparing PRP therapy injections to autologous blood injections in 28 patients who had symptoms of lateral epicondylitis for greater than 3 months. Patients were instructed on home physical therapy consisting of eccentric exercises. Reevaluation was done at 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months to assess symptoms on a VAS pain scale and a Liverpool elbow score, which measured range of motion, activity level, and ulnar nerve function. On the VAS scale, both groups demonstrated improvements at all follow-up appointments. The PRP group had better results at each visit, with statistically better results at 6 weeks. Both groups also showed improvements on the Liverpool elbow score at all visits, with no significant differences noted. [16]

Creany et al compared PRP injections to autologous blood injections in 130 individuals with refractory symptoms of lateral epicondylitis in whom conservative physical therapy had failed. These injections were performed under ultrasound guidance, and each group had two injections, initial visit and then 1 month later. The outcome measured was the Patient-Related Tennis Elbow Evaluation (PRTEE) score. Success was defined as a 25-point improvement in this score. Measurements were obtained a 0, 1, 3, and 6 months. At 6 months, there was a 66% success rate in the PRP group and a 72% success rate in the autologous blood group. However, 20% of the autologous blood group went on to have surgery, versus 10% of the PRP group. [31]

More recently in 2013, Raeisadat et al performed a randomized clinical trial involving 40 patients who had symptoms consistent with lateral epicondylitis for greater than 3 months. They looked at improvement in pain and function when comparing PRP with autologous blood. Both groups were given a counterforce brace and a home exercise program. At 4 weeks, Mayo and visual analogue scale (VAS) scores significantly improved in both the PRP and the autologous blood groups. However, only the PRP group demonstrated significant improvement at 8 weeks with respect to the VAS and Mayo scores. [32]

Krogh et al examine whether a single injection of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) is more effective than placebo (saline) or glucocorticoid in reducing pain in adults with LE after 3 months. The authors conclude that either injection of PRP nor glucocorticoid was superior to saline with regard to pain reduction in LE at the primary end point at 3 months. However, injection of glucocorticoid had a short-term pain-reducing effect at 1 month in contrast to the other therapies. Injection of glucocorticoid in LE reduces both color Doppler activity and tendon thickness compared with PRP and saline. [33]

Mishra et al evaluate the clinical value of tendon needling with PRP in patients with chronic tennis elbow compared with an active control group. No significant differences were found at 12 weeks in this study, however, at 24 weeks, clinically meaningful improvements were found in patients treated with leukocyte-enriched PRP compared with an active control group. [34]

Hyaluronate (HA) injections

A novel approach to the treatment of chronic lateral epicondylitis is HA injections. Petrella et al looked at treating 331 individuals with lateral elbow pain of greater than 3 months with either 1% sodium HA or saline. This was a double-blinded study, and each group received an injection at baseline and then 1 week later. Participants had not had any recent injections. They were instructed on postinjection care of rest, ice, compression, elevation (RICE) and no formal physical therapy was prescribed. Primary outcomes were improvement on VAS at rest and after elbow grip testing. VAS pain at rest and after grip testing was significantly better in the HA group versus the saline group. There was also improvement in secondary outcomes of grip strength, patient global satisfaction, and assessment of normal elbow function in the HA group versus the saline group. These differences persisted at the 90-day and 365-day follow-up appointments. [35]

Polidocanol

Polidocanol is a vascular sclerosant. Zeisig et al looked at 32 patients with symptoms of chronic lateral epicondylitis in whom conservative therapy had failed. [36] Some patients had previously had injections (cortisone = 24, botulism = 5). Eccentric strengthening was previously used in 22 participants and 2 participants had tendon-lengthening surgery. Symptoms were present for more than 3 months and there had been no previous treatment in the past 3 months. Groups were randomized to either an ultrasound-guided blinded injection of polidocanol or lidocaine plus epinephrine.

Patients were followed for 3 months for primary endpoints of satisfaction with treatment and elbow pain during grip activities of daily life. At 3 months, if they still had pain, they were offered another injection of polidocanol. They were then followed for a total of 12 months. At 3 and 12 months, there was a significant improvement in patient satisfaction and in VAS grip pain from baseline for both groups. However, there was no significant difference between the groups.

Botulinum toxin (BTX)

In a study by Wong et al, the authors demonstrated that an injection of BTX decreased patients' pain from lateral epicondylitis at 4-12 weeks when compared with saline injection; however, there was an increased incidence of side effects in the BTX treated group, which included digit paresis and weakness of finger extension. [37] In addition, the trial was small (60 patients), most of the patients were women, and the blinding of the study may have been affected by some of the patients possibly knowing which treatment they received (4 patients experienced digit paresis and may have correctly deduced they received the BTX injection).

A study by Placzek et al also demonstrated improvement in painful symptoms arising from lateral epicondylitis when BTX injections were used compared with saline. [38] However, another randomized controlled trial demonstrated no significant difference when comparing injections of BTX and saline in the treatment of lateral epicondylitis. [39]

A double-blind randomized controlled study published in 2017 did not find significant differences between corticosteroid and botulinum toxin injections. [40]  Another study by Creuzé et al reported that botulinum toxin A 40 IU injected into the extensor carpi radialis brevis muscle as an effective treatment for chronic lateral epicondylar tendinopathy that has been otherwise resistant to medical treatment. [46]

 

Topical nitrates

Topical nitrates are thought to stimulate collagen synthesis and improve healing. Paolini et al demonstrated that application of topical nitrates to be an effective method of treating pain from lateral epicondylitis. [41]

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Acute Phase

Rehabilitation Program

Physical Therapy

Strength training, exercise, and stretching have been shown to decrease pain in patients with lateral epicondylitis. [19] It is important to have the patients progress from concentric to eccentric exercises and then stress eccentric exercises when the individual is able to tolerate them. NSAID iontophoresis is also an effective method of treating pain from lateral epicondylitis, but corticosteroid iontophoresis has not been shown to be effective. [19] Occupational therapy can be employed in an attempt to modify the workplace environment to eliminate aggravating activities.

Ultrasound (US) therapy has demonstrated modest pain reduction, [19, 23] although US- and color Doppler-guided intratendinous injections with polidocanol in the extensor origin have shown promising clinical results, [36] and there is insufficient evidence to support the use of transverse friction, soft-tissue therapy in the treatment of lateral epicondylitis. [42]

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Recovery Phase

Surgical Intervention

Surgical intervention can be very effective for refractory cases of lateral epicondylitis, with a large percentage of individuals reporting improvement in their symptoms. However, surgical intervention is only indicated after 6 months of conservative care has failed to relieve the patient's symptoms. A long-term follow-up study (mean, 130 mo; range, 106-173 mo) of arthroscopic treatment of recalcitrant lateral epicondylitis by Baker and Baker demonstrated that arthroscopic removal of pathologic tendinosis tissue can be a successful treatment strategy in such cases. [43]

See the image below.

Representation of the relationships in arthroscopi Representation of the relationships in arthroscopic release for lateral epicondylitis.

It is important that each case is evaluated individually, because some patients may have multiple relapses or lack progression through therapy. These patients may opt for surgery after a shorter trial of conservative care.

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