Surgical Treatment of Lateral Epicondylitis: A Prospective, Randomized, Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial

Am J Sports Med. 2018 Apr;46(5):1106-1113. doi: 10.1177/0363546517753385. Epub 2018 Mar 2.


Background: A number of surgical techniques for managing tennis elbow have been described. One of the most frequently performed involves excising the affected portion of the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB). The results of this technique, as well as most other described surgical techniques for this condition, have been reported as excellent, yet none have been compared with placebo surgery.

Hypothesis: The surgical excision of the degenerative portion of the ECRB offers no additional benefit over and above placebo surgery for the management of chronic tennis elbow.

Study design: Randomized controlled trial; Level of evidence, 2.

Methods: This study investigated surgical excision of the macroscopically degenerated portion of the ECRB (surgery; n = 13) as compared with skin incision and exposure of the ECRB alone (sham; n = 13) to treat patients who had tennis elbow for >6 months and had failed at least 2 nonsurgical modalities. The primary outcome measure was defined as patient-rated frequency of elbow pain with activity at 6 months after surgery. Secondary outcome measures included patient-rated pain and functional outcomes, range of motion, epicondyle tenderness, and strength at 6 months and 2.5 years. All outcome measures up to and including the 6-month follow-up were measured in person; the longer-term questionnaire was conducted in person or over the phone.

Results: The 2 groups, surgery and sham, were similar for age, sex, hand dominance, and duration of symptoms. Both procedures improved patient-rated pain frequency and severity, elbow stiffness, difficulty with picking up objects, difficulty with twisting motions, and overall elbow rating >6 months and at 2.5 years ( P < .01). Both procedures also improved epicondyle tenderness, pronation-supination range, grip strength, and modified Orthopaedic Research Institute-Tennis Elbow Testing System at 6 months ( P < .05). No significant difference was observed between the groups in any parameter at any stage. No side effects or complications were reported. The study was stopped before the calculated number of patients were enrolled (40 per group); yet, a post hoc futility analysis was conducted that showed, based on the magnitude of the differences between the groups, >6500 patients would need to be recruited per group to see a significant difference between the groups at 26 weeks in the primary outcome (patient-rated frequency of elbow pain with activity).

Conclusion: With the number of available participants, this study failed to show additional benefit of the surgical excision of the degenerative portion of the ECRB over placebo surgery for the management of chronic tennis elbow.

Keywords: elbow; lateral epicondylitis; placebo; surgery; tendinosis; tennis elbow.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Elbow Joint / physiopathology*
  • Elbow Joint / surgery
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Orthopedic Procedures / methods*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Range of Motion, Articular
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Tennis Elbow / surgery*