Thousands of athletes and other working professionals every year experience something commonly known as “Tennis Elbow”. This distinctly named condition is, in fact, a kind of injury that can be contracted during any repetitive and stressful movements of the forearm, as is very common in the game of tennis. Of course, you don’t have to be a tennis player to get tennis elbow. Anyone who uses their arms regularly at work, from playing golf to moving boxes, even stirring large batches of food in a cafeteria kitchen, can cause this kind of elbow strain, and it is often caused by doing the same forceful motion too many times with imperfect form that puts strain on the tendons of your elbow and forearm.
The Symptoms of Tennis Elbow
How do you know if your elbow pain is tennis elbow or some other injury caused condition? The symptoms are quite distinctive so there should be little confusion. Those with tennis elbow experience a sharp pain or ache on the outside of the arm where the forearm meets the elbow. This is where your tendons are, which connect muscles to bones. When you have constantly misused your arm strength at a bad angle, these tendons can become stressed and when one sprains or tears, pain occurs and the area may swell.
In many cases, it becomes painful to use the arm or to grip firmly with the hand once the damage is done. If the pain does not go away with a day or two of rest, the problem is more than weariness or a mild sprain. Fortunately, like most minor tendon injuries, tennis elbow tends to heal on its own with a bit of rest and the right treatment techniques.
Causes of Tennis Elbow
Any activity that puts constant strain on the muscles around your elbow can cause this common problem. This is a particular problem in sports, where versatility and creativity of motion cause you to use your body in ways it wasn’t quite designed for. The tennis backhand, for instance, is a common culprit. As an athlete looking to improve their skills, it’s important to note that while poor form is often a contributor to tennis elbow, this is not always the case. Sometimes, simply gripping your equipment too tightly can put undue strain on your muscles and tendons, causing weariness and the occasional painful tear. Even painters and musicians can get tennis elbow from repetitive motions, form, and tight gripping.
How to Treat Your Tennis Elbow
If you are familiar with sports and activity-based injuries, then you probably already have a good baseline for understanding what it takes to nurse your tennis elbow back to full functionality. The hardest part will be holding on to your patience. It can be hard to keep your arm at rest for long periods of time and to avoid your favorite activities that led to the strain, but quickly returning to sports or work before the arm heals is a quick way to make the problem much worse rather than better.
Start with R.I.C.E.
R.I.C.E., as you may already know, stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. In this circumstance, elevation is the least of your worries, but rest, ice, and compression are all great ideas to help you deal with your healing tennis elbow on a daily basis.
First and foremost, stop doing whatever caused the problem. This will be easy to identify because your arm will hurt a lot worse when you try to line it up to do the task. However, stopping the stressors isn’t enough, because during recovery you will need to keep your arm as relaxed and comfortable as possible in order to give the tendons time to mend and grow back strong.
While this is not always the case many instances of tennis elbow are also accompanied by significant swelling. If you notice inflammation, it’s time to start icing throughout the day until the swelling goes down. Make sure to keep a layer of cloth between the ice and your skin and ice for no more than about 15 minutes at a time. You can also alternate by warming the elbow either with a heating pad, in a basin of hot water, or by taking a relaxing bath.
The right kind of compression wrap, brace, or sleeve can help to take some of the pressure off your tendons and elbow by adding support along your arm which can accept weight without requiring you to grip harder. If you feel that your tennis elbow needs extra support, using an elbow brace can provide that to the arm and the pressure will remind you to go easy on your elbow.
Keep the Arm In Motion
While you should be resting your elbow and staying away from the activity that caused your injury, it’s also important to ensure that your arm stays in motion. Tendons are intended to be used and the last thing you want is for your tendon to heal stiff and inflexible because you forgot to do the right stretches. While continuing to work with your arm, as we don’t assume you can keep it completely stationary, try to stay within the middle range of motion, never bending or straightening the arm all the way. You can also try to use your shoulder and upper arm muscles as a way to take some of the work off your elbow and forearm.
Once your elbow doesn’t hurt with every motion, start carefully rebuilding strength and flexibility through the right combination of exercises. Try rolling your wrists in eccentric and concentric movements, as this will prevent stiff scarring in the attachment area between the elbow muscle and joint that may have taken damage. Make sure to gently stretch and exercise the forearm to break up tissue adhesion that can make the problem worse. Don’t actually put any strain on your elbow, simply keep it in motion so it doesn’t stiffen or weaken too much during your recovery time. As you get better, you may be able to increase resistance in your elbow stretches in order to build your strength back up.
Pain and Inflammation Management
In some cases of tennis elbow, the pain and inflammation become more than the RICE method can help you with. When this happens, it’s important to know what other solutions are safe for treatment. Some over the counter pain medications can be used for both purposes if taken in moderation. These can include medicines featuring Ibuprofen (Advil), Naproxen (Aleve), Asprin (Bayer) or NSAID cream which can be applied topically.
If you’re not a fan of using painkillers, you can also try a few natural remedies. Several foods are known to promote health and reduce inflammation and are worth trying while you wait for your elbow to heal. Bone broth, which is soup stock made by simmering chicken or beef bones until they release their essential components is a great way to increase your intake of healing compounds like collagen, proline, glycine, and glutamine. You can reduce inflammation by increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, blueberries, avocados, and sweet potatoes. Finally, lean meats are your friend as clean protein is what your body needs to rebuild muscle and tendon tissue.
Tennis elbow doesn’t have to keep you down for long. All you need is a little relaxation, some careful stretching, and the right treatment methods.