Tennis elbow can happen to almost anyone, not just tennis players. Studies show that about 3% of the American adult population suffers from this condition every year whether it was triggered by some repeated gripping activity at work or from rigorous sports activities that involve tightly gripping and swinging equipment. The problem with tennis elbow is that it while it may be caused by doing the same combination of moves and stressful activities over and over again, the pain and damage sneaks up on you. It starts a very dull ache that’s easy to ignore. Especially if the motion is caused by work or an exercise style you really enjoy, it’s all too tempting to simply work through the pain and any people don’t notice the pain getting worse until it starts showing up outside the workout routine.
Pretty soon, you’re likely to notice your elbow aching during the day away from the usual strenuous activity and one of the signatures of tennis elbow is when this ache develops very quickly into intense and overwhelming pain. This is also generally the point where most people see sudden swelling.
What’s Happening With Your Elbow
Many people find themselves wondering what they did wrong to cause the pain in their elbow. You may think it was bad form or something like an elbow sprain. While it’s true that tennis elbow does have to do with a tendon in your elbow, the progression of tennis elbow is very different from a normal sprain. The fact of the matter is that you can get tennis elbow even if your racket or golfing form is perfect and you’re doing everything right. The early phase of tennis elbow is caused purely by overwork. When you work your elbow as hard as it can go and then keep going, this overtaxes it and weakens the tendon rather than strengthening it.
The second half of tennis elbow, the sudden pain and swelling, are the result of pushing your elbow past the aching point of weakness and exhaustion. Stress while the tendon is weak will eventually cause a tear. That tendon tear is what hurts and your body responding to the tear is what causes the inflammation. It should also be noted that a torn tendon is the cause of an ankle or wrist sprain. This means that tennis elbow is, essentially an elbow sprain that is caused by long-term overuse and a “straw that broke the camel’s back” scenario.
The Two Aspects of Tennis Elbow Recovery
A lot of people struggle with treating and recovering their tennis elbow and the biggest frustration is how long the process takes. It took a long time to cause and it’s going to take a few months of careful treatment and recovery before you’re ready to get back to the repetitive activity that got you into this situation in the first place. More to the point, tennis elbow may involve damage in the same place on the same tendon, but the two different causes of tennis elbow also mean that you will need two different types of recovery.
First, you will need to address the more severe damage caused by the tendon rip and sprain-equivalent injury and then you’ll need to settle in for a long healing process for both the tear and severely overworked tendon tissue. In other words, the two aspects of tennis elbow treatment are dealing with the inflammation and pain and then facing the challenges of longer-term recovery.
Reducing Tennis Elbow Inflammation with RICE
The vast majority of people who suffer from Tennis elbow don’t notice until they pass into the second phase with the intense pain of a torn tendon. When the tendon tears, blood courses to the point of the injury in order to cushion it, promote healing, and would be available to form a scab if the injury was connected to an external scrape. While your blood has nothing but good intentions, all this focus will result in severe swelling, tenderness, and unnecessary pain if allowed to go uncontrolled and untreated.
Within the first 24 to 28 hours after the beginning of intense pain, it is vital that you focus on bringing down the inflammation. To do this, make direct and intentional use of the athlete’s RICE method. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Each of these points is specifically chosen to help reduce the amount of swelling. The more you can reduce inflammation, the less pain there will be and you may be able to preserve some mobility in the elbow in the early recovery phase.
Rest means that you need to stop using the elbow immediately. While it is most likely to occur in your dominant elbow which can be challenging, you will need to stop doing anything that requires grip, lift, extension, or fine muscle control.
Ice is exactly what it sounds like. Doctors and first responders have found that a wide-mouthed cup or bowl of ice is a great way to rest the affected outer side of your elbow immersed in cold. Be sure to wrap your elbow or drape a towel over the top of the bowl of ice to protect your skin. Ice ten to thirty minutes at a time with at least an hour between icings.
Compression is a vital part of tennis elbow treatment in the early stage and can be accomplished with the right kind of elbow brace. Look for a compression brace to start with that offers both support and limited range of motion. This will prevent excess blood from flowing to the elbow and will help you maintain the ‘rest’ mandate while still living your life one elbow short.
Elevation is a great example of a recovery method designed just to reduce inflammation. By propping your elbow up above the level of your heart, this slows the blood trying to get to the injury and therefore reduces the amount of swelling.
Treating Tennis Elbow Pain
A normal wrist, ankle, or even elbow sprain comes with a certain amount of pain, usually related to trying to use or put weight on the damaged joint in question. The problem with tennis elbow is that it’s a sprain-type injury in already damaged and worn out tissue. This can cause the pain to be much more intense and is caused in part by scar tissue trying to form in the tendon tissue.
One of the best ways to treat the pain of a recovering tennis elbow is self-massage, Lay your forearm out on a supporting surface in front of you and gently massage the sore tissue with your fingertips, This may cause a small amount of additional pain but should also induce a relaxing sensation as you break up any stiffening tissue trying to build up around the injury.
If you do turn to pain medication as many people do, be sure to choose a variation that is also an anti-inflammatory. This will help with your battle against swelling and will promote healing in the damaged tissue. Many athletes and those with tennis elbow also find anti-inflammatory foods to be a beneficial addition to your recovery plan.
The Long Recovery
Once the swelling has gone down and the pain has ebbed some, you will be facing the long and not particularly exciting road to tennis elbow recovery. The key is to keep the stress that caused the injury off the elbow the entire time it is healing. The common way to deal with this is with a tennis elbow strap or correctly restricting brace. This way, you can live much of your life without putting the elbow at risk.
When the pain has reduced back to an ache and you start to feel a little strength back in you’re arm, it’s time to start working on recovery exercises. You will need a lightweight between two and five pounds, a table, and your arm. Lay your forearm on the table with your palm up and your wrist hanging over the edge, then slowly lift and lower the small weight. You should also spend some time stretching your wrist backward to stretch the tendon and squeeze exercises to strengthen your grip again.
Over time you will feel the ache fading and the strength will come back to your elbow and forearm. However, you should still give your elbow an extra two weeks of ‘breathing room’ even after you feel completely better to be sure that all the healing that needs to happen has occurred before you start truly strenuous exercise again. You will always need to be careful about the initial repetitive motion cause and any future repetitive motions that might result in the same kind of injury because a tendon once damaged is more likely to become injured again.
Avoiding a Repeat Injury
Finally, tennis elbow is the result of not noticing how hard you are working your elbow before the intense pain and swelling begins. With plenty of time to think about it during your recovery, learn the lesson of tennis elbow and pay close attention to your muscles and tendons as you work or workout. By catching warning signs like aching or weakness early, you may be able to avoid these months of challenging recovery.