What is Tennis Elbow and How to Treat It
Tennis Elbow, also known as Lateral Epicondylitis, is a painful condition in which the tendons around your elbow swell and even tear. Named for its common appearance among tennis players, you don’t actually have to play the game in order to suffer from a bout of this affliction. The root cause of Tennis Elbow is overuse of the arm muscles and tendons, due to repetitive motion. This can be either acute, resulting from a sudden injury caused by, for example taking a shot with improper technique. It can also be chronic, building up gradually over weeks or months from repetitive strain until it starts to cause pain.
Tendons are bands of tissue which connect your muscles with your bones. The muscle of your lower arm is joined to the bone by a tendon which connects at the outer part of your elbow. When this tendon is weakened or torn, you get the pain in your elbow and sometimes in your lower arm.
Tennis Elbow can really ‘put you off your game,’ whether you’re an athlete or not; trying to perform your daily routines with arm pain isn’t easy, especially when you’re trying to complete tasks which caused the injury in the first place. Read further to find out how you came to have the condition and how to treat it.
Tennis Elbow Causes
As mentioned above, Tennis Elbow is most commonly the result of repetitive use of the tendon. This is actually often the result of your finger and wrist action, rather than being exclusive to movement in your actual elbow.
Racquet sports like Squash, Badminton and Racquetball, as well as, obviously, Tennis, often lead to the affliction in athletes. Gripping and swinging a racquet can aggravate the condition, especially when paired with poor technique or incorrectly sized equipment. Athletes who suffer from Tennis Elbow should have their equipment checked to make sure their grips or handles are the right width to suit their hands. Other sports which commonly lead to cases of Tennis Elbow often involve a lot of arm movement, like fencing and even weightlifting.
You don’t have to be a sportsperson to suffer from elbow tendonitis, either. Anyone who spends a lot of time moving their arm or hand in the same repetitive motion, or who has to spend a lot of time gripping an object, is susceptible. Other hobbies and occupations which often suffer from this injury are: painters, carpenters, chefs, butchers, knitters and musicians. Whether it be typing, holding a paintbrush, hammering, or any other repetitive hand movement, Tennis elbow is a possible outcome.
Tennis Elbow Symptoms
Tennis Elbow causes inflammation around the elbow, and you may be experiencing pain, swelling and stiffness around the joint. These symptoms may give you trouble moving your arm in various normal directions and reduce your mobility. Pain and tenderness often affects your wrist and hand too, and you may have difficulty moving or putting pressure on your wrist. Stretching you hand or picking up objects can also become painful or result a ‘pins and needles’ type sensation.
How to Treat your Tennis Elbow
1. Rest your Arm: The good news is that Tennis Elbow will usually heal on its own, given enough time and rest. The bad news is that you have to stop doing whatever action has caused the condition in the first place. This can be harder than it sounds, especially if your job or livelihood relies on moving your arm a certain way, like typing or hammering. To recover, you don’t need to keep your arm completely immobilised, but try to eliminate or at least cut down on the specific repetitive action for a few months. This will give your tendon time to heal itself.
2. Ice Packs: Icing your arm and elbow for around 10 minutes, several times a day can reduce the pain and inflammation you experience. Use an icepack or bag of frozen peas wrapped in a cloth and simply hold it on the painful area. For best results, follow the RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. It can be helpful to wrap up the area in a bandage or brace while icing to minimise blood flow, as this can take down any swelling when used in conjunction with ice.
3. Use a brace: Wearing a brace can alleviate symptoms by taking pressure off the muscle and tendon, and slowing the tendon to rest. Your tendon needs blood and oxygen to heal though, so this should only be used as temporary pain relief and support rather than any kind of cure.
4. Apply Heat: It may seem strange to say this after advising icepacks, but application of heat can work well for some people. Resting your arm in a hot bath or applying a heat pack (not so hot that you’ll get burned, obviously) can increase blood flow to the area, stimulating healing as nutrients and oxygen penetrate the tendon. Like an icepack, use a heatpack for around 10 minutes two or three times a day.
5. Physiotherapy Exercises: Certain exercises can help to strengthen the muscles and tendons of the forearm, making them more robust and able to handle strenuous motion. Exercise also stimulates blood flow for a healing boost. Stretches increase the flexibility of the arm and ease up the stiffness you may be feeling. Sports massage may also be incorporated into a physical therapy regime.
6. Painkillers: There are some painkiller options, including non-steroidal oral drugs like aspirin which can reduce inflammation. You can take this at home for temporary relief, but unless you want to spend the rest of your life popping pills, aspirin isn’t really a long term answer to your Tennis Elbow. Doctors can also administer a steroid injection to temporarily take away the pain and inflammation, but again this is only a temporary solution.
7. Surgery: As a last resort, a surgeon can remove the injured piece of tendon. This should only be used after trying the other methods. If you’re not seeing any improvement after six months of treatment, then surgery may be necessary. Be aware that there are always risks to surgery and it will also require a period of recovery afterwards. This should be seriously discussed with your physician before committing to surgical treatment.