Tendinitis is inflammation or irritation of a tendon — any one of the thick fibrous cords that attaches muscle to bone. The condition causes pain and tenderness just outside a joint.
While tendinitis can occur in any of your body's tendons, it's most common around your shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees and heels.
Some common names for various tendinitis problems are:
- Tennis elbow
- Golfer's elbow
- Pitcher's shoulder
- Swimmer's shoulder
- Jumper's knee
If tendinitis is severe and leads to the rupture of a tendon, you may need surgical repair. But most cases of tendinitis can be successfully treated with rest, physical therapy and medications to reduce pain.
Signs and symptoms of tendinitis tend to occur at the point where a tendon attaches to a bone and typically include:
- Pain often described as a dull ache, especially when moving the affected limb or joint
- Mild swelling
When to see a doctor
Most cases of tendinitis can respond to self-care measures. See your doctor if your signs and symptoms persist and interfere with your day-to-day activities for more than a few days.
Although tendinitis can be caused by a sudden injury, the condition is much more likely to stem from the repetition of a particular movement over time. Most people develop tendinitis because their jobs or hobbies involve repetitive motions, which put stress on the tendons needed to perform the tasks.
Using proper technique is especially important when performing repetitive sports movements or job-related activities. Improper technique can overload the tendon — which can occur, for instance, with tennis elbow — and lead to tendinitis.
Risk factors for developing tendinitis include age, working in particular jobs or participating in certain sports.
As people get older, their tendons become less flexible — which makes them easier to injure.
Tendinitis is more common in people whose jobs involve:
- Repetitive motions
- Awkward positions
- Frequent overhead reaching
- Forceful exertion
You may be more likely to develop tendinitis if you participate in certain sports that involve repetitive motions, especially if your technique isn't optimal. This can occur with:
Without proper treatment, tendinitis can increase your risk of experiencing tendon rupture — a much more serious condition that may require surgical repair.
If tendon irritation persists for several weeks or months, a condition known as tendinosis may develop. This condition involves degenerative changes in the tendon itself, along with abnormal new blood vessel growth.
Tests and diagnosis
Tendinitis can usually be diagnosed during the physical exam alone. Your doctor may order X-rays or other imaging tests if he or she needs to rule out other conditions that may be causing your signs and symptoms.
Treatments and drugs
The goals of tendinitis treatment are to relieve your pain and reduce inflammation. Often, taking care of tendinitis on your own — including rest, ice and over-the-counter pain relievers — may be all the treatment that you need.
For tendinitis, your doctor may recommend these medications:
- Pain relievers. Taking aspirin, naproxen sodium (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) may relieve discomfort associated with tendinitis.
Topical creams with anti-inflammatory medication — popular in Europe and becoming increasingly available in the United States —also may be effective in relieving pain without the potential side effects of taking anti-inflammatory medications by mouth.
- Corticosteroids. Sometimes your doctor may inject a corticosteroid medication around a tendon to relieve tendinitis. Injections of cortisone reduce inflammation and can help ease pain.
Corticosteroids are not recommended for chronic tendinitis (lasting over three months), as repeated injections may weaken a tendon and increase your risk of rupturing the tendon.
- Platelet-rich plasma (PRP). PRP treatment involves taking a sample of your own blood and spinning the blood to separate out the platelets and healing factors. The solution is then re-injected into the area of chronic tendon irritation.
Though still under investigation, PRP injection in the region of chronic tendon irritation has been shown to be beneficial for many chronic tendon conditions.
You might benefit from a program of specific exercise designed to stretch and strengthen the affected muscle-tendon unit. For instance, eccentric strengthening — which emphasizes contraction of a muscle while it's lengthening — has been shown to be effective in treating chronic tendon inflammation.
Surgical and other procedures
Depending on the severity of your tendon injury, surgical repair may be needed, especially if the tendon has torn away from the bone.
For chronic tendon inflammation, focused aspiration of scar tissue (FAST) is a minimally invasive treatment option using ultrasound guidance and very small instruments designed to remove tendon scar tissue without disturbing the surrounding healthy tendon tissue.
FAST achieves the same goal as open surgery but is performed under local anesthesia in a nonsurgical setting. Most people return to normal activities within one to two months.
Lifestyle and home remedies
To treat tendinitis at home, R.I.C.E. is the acronym to remember — rest, ice, compression and elevation. This treatment can help speed your recovery and help prevent further problems.
- Rest. Avoid activities that increase the pain or swelling. Don't try to work or play through the pain. Rest is essential to tissue healing. But it doesn't mean complete bed rest. You can do other activities and exercises that don't stress the injured tendon. Swimming and water exercise may be well-tolerated.
- Ice. To decrease pain, muscle spasm and swelling, apply ice to the injured area for up to 20 minutes several times a day. Ice packs, ice massage or slush baths with ice and water all can help. For an ice massage, freeze a plastic foam cup full of water so that you can hold the cup while applying the ice directly to the skin.
- Compression. Because swelling can result in loss of motion in an injured joint, compress the area until the swelling has ceased. Wraps or compressive elastic bandages are best.
- Elevation. If tendinitis affects your knee, raise the affected leg above the level of your heart to reduce swelling.
Although rest is a key part of treating tendinitis, prolonged inactivity can cause stiffness in your joints. After a few days of completely resting the injured area, gently move it through its full range of motion to maintain joint flexibility.
You can also try over-the-counter medications — such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen sodium (Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) — in an attempt to reduce the discomfort associated with tendinitis.
To reduce your chance of developing tendinitis, follow these suggestions:
- Ease up. Avoid activities that place excessive stress on your tendons, especially for prolonged periods. If you notice pain during a particular exercise, stop and rest.
- Mix it up. If one exercise or activity causes you a particular, persistent pain, try something else. Cross-training can help you mix up an impact-loading exercise, such as running, with lower impact exercise, such as biking or swimming.
- Improve your technique. If your technique in an activity or exercise is flawed, you could be setting yourself up for problems with your tendons. Consider taking lessons or getting professional instructions when starting a new sport or using exercise equipment.
- Stretch. Take time after exercise to stretch in order to maximize the range of motion of your joints. This can help to minimize repetitive trauma on tight tissues. The best time to stretch is after exercise, when your muscles are warmed up.
- Use proper workplace ergonomics. If possible, get an ergonomic assessment of your work space and adjust your chair, keyboard and desktop as recommended for your height, arm length and usual tasks. This will help protect all your joints and tendons from excessive stress.
- Prepare your muscles to play. Strengthening muscles used in your activity or sport can help them better withstand stress and load.