Tennis is a great activity to feed your warrior spirit and competitive instincts. After gaining basic tennis skills, notch it up and play competent matches with similarly-matched opponents and compete regularly. Even after only a few times a month, you might be experiencing tightness and/or soreness. There is an enormous amount of torque and strain on shoulder and elbow joints, with the elbow typically being the weaker of those two joints. This can lead to severe tendonitis and the painful soreness know as “tennis elbow“. Fortunately for competitive tennis players, tennis elbow treatments have come a long way from the “icing and resting” recommendations.
If you believe you’re vulnerable to tennis elbow (i.e. you suffered a previous injury that stretched or weakened your tendons), your best treatment is preventing tennis elbow before it starts. Apply ice to your elbow joint after a tennis match, even if you do not feel pain or discomfort. The ice helps reduce swelling and inflammation in the joint. A low-dose anti-inflammatory product like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can further reduce discomfort and swelling. Use these treatments any time you feel any sensations of pain or swelling in your elbow or other joints.
A tennis elbow brace and/or compression sleeve helps constrict the movements that cause the symptoms of tendonitis. Wearing a brace allows to you continue playing with less worry of pain, though it may take a little to get used to playing tennis with a brace on.
The muscles and tendons in your elbow will also benefit from simple warm-up exercises that you can do anywhere immediately before a tennis match. Before you pick up your racket, for example, do two or three sets of wrist circles in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions. You can do this warmup by staying relaxed and resting your forearms on your thighs, and then slowly rotate your forearms and wrists in each direction, forming loose fists with your hands. You might also try hand-flips, and sequentially touching each of your fingers to your thumbs several times. Even if you don’t feel these warmups are doing anything, they engage your forearm and wrist muscles to increase blood flow into your arms.
If you sense muscle tightness in your forearms, you can try a few wrist and forearm stretches after you have done your warmup exercises. Do not try to stretch cold muscles because the could lead to further strain on joints and tendons. The forward and backward movements of your hands are controlled by flexor and extensor muscles in your forearms. Stretch these muscles by using one hand to pull or push the other hand to the point where you feel the stretch and then holding that stretch for a 10-count. Muscles that are stretched out and more limber will not translate muscular tension into tendons that are already inflamed.
Tennis players might avoid strength training out of fear of becoming too musclebound to play a good tennis match, but strengthening your arms can go a long way toward avoiding tennis elbow problems or treating those problems when they arise. Bicep curls and tricep kickbacks with smaller weights will strengthen your upper arm without increasing the bulk of those muscles. Strengthen your grip and the muscles in your forearms by squeezing a tennis ball or some other soft object periodically during your day. Incorporate these strengthening exercises into your regular daily routine without committing any time to weight room sessions.
A critical aspect of warmups, stretching, and strengthening exercises is that you should begin them as soon as you feel the slightest discomfort in your elbow. Don’t try playing through pain and discomfort. It’s not worth the risk further damage.
Therapists might also recommend high-frequency ultrasound therapy to break up knots and adhesions in the muscle tissue in your arms. Deep tissue massage and pressure therapy with a foam roller may also be effective for this purpose. Corticosteroid injections and deep tissue massage should always be viewed as adjuncts to stretching and strengthening your arm muscles, and not just replacements for stretching and strengthening. You should also have your tennis stroke periodically reviewed by a tennis coach or pro who can diagnose subtle technique issues that may be putting more strain on your elbow.
As a last resort, you might consider surgical treatment for tennis elbow problems to remove damaged or torn tendon tissue from the joint. Surgery will put you out of commission for an extended period of time, during which you will also need to do extensive rehab on the surgically-repaired joint. Still, surgery may be your only option if your elbow experienced a traumatic injury that resulted in significant muscle or tendon tearing.
The good news for tennis elbow sufferers is that most will recover from tennis elbow problems without invasive treatments. For some sufferers, the problem will go away on its own. For the rest, however, some response and treatment will be required.