Those who are old hands at tennis may be familiar with the agony of tennis elbow. A burning pain that shows up along the outside of your arm, often when you pick up your sport again after some time off or increase how much you’re playing. However, tennis elbow afflicts more than tennis players. This injury can show up in many different sports, hobbies or occupations.
Symptoms of Tennis Elbow
The tendons in your forearm that connect the knobby bump on the outer elbow to the wrist work to control your hand and finger movements. Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, occurs when repetitive motion of the wrist or arm causes repeated microtrauma to the muscles and tendons where they attach to the elbow. Early on there is inflammation, but this soon turns into tendon degeneration.
Tennis elbow is characterized by:
- Pain at the outer part of the elbow.
- Pain when gripping or twisting, like when opening a door or holding a pen.
Who Gets Tennis Elbow?
“Elbow pain is a common complaint, and it’s not just from racquet sports like tennis, pickleball or racquetball,” said Travis Obermire, DPT, who specializes in sports rehabilitation at Samaritan Athletic Medicine Center. “You can develop tennis elbow from other sports like baseball or golf, and in jobs or hobbies that have repetitive gripping or wrist extension with weighted objects such as gardening.”
Painters who swish a paintbrush, plumbers who twist a wrench or construction workers who swing a hammer are among the likeliest to be affected, but Obermire reported that it can affect anyone during an activity with recurring hand movements. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons the condition is more frequent in people aged 30 to 50.
Pain Relief & Treatment Options
Rest the Arm
According to Obermire, tennis elbow may heal on its own with minimal treatment. A counterforce brace that covers the back of the forearm can relieve pain and help support your muscles and tendons while the injury heals. If your pain doesn’t improve with rest, make an appointment with your primary care provider and physical therapist to have the injury examined and learn how your activities can be modified.
If you have recurring tennis elbow, you may benefit from physical therapy.
Obermire reported an effective tendon loading program that teaches you how to strengthen your tendons and the surrounding muscles is highly successful at reducing elbow pain. A physical therapist can help you understand how to modify your activities and use correct ergonomics to keep the pain from coming back.
Occasionally elbow pain is persistent. For severe cases of tennis elbow that fail to resolve with conservative management, an injection may be prescribed by your treating physician. There are various forms of injections. Some of these include steroids, platelet rich plasma, saline and prolotherapy.
Although rare, stubborn cases of tennis elbow that persist for more than a year may require surgery to remove damaged tissue. An orthopedic surgeon can help you determine if you are a good candidate for surgery.
Inner Elbow Pain
Golfer’s elbow, or medial epicondylitis, is similar to tennis elbow but the pain occurs on the inside of the elbow.
Golfer’s elbow symptoms include:
- Pain along the inner elbow and forearm.
- Numbness or tingling in the pinky or ring fingers.
Many of the same activities that cause tennis elbow can cause golfer’s elbow so if you notice pain or burning on the inside of your elbow, stop any repetitive twisting or gripping actions.
Evaluate Workplace Habits
If you work at a job that is aggravating your elbow pain, Obermire recommended the following tips:
- Take regular breaks from repetitive tasks and get a workplace ergonomic assessment.
- Wear a brace or elbow strap to support your tendons while you work and help prevent injury.
- Ask your primary care provider for a referral to physical therapy to learn strengthening and stretching exercises. A physical therapist will help you connect the dots between optimal posture, strength and ways to offload the tendon.
Return to Sport Safely
If your elbow pain is due to playing sports, make sure your equipment is the right fit. According to Obermire, a racquet that is too large or strings that are too tight can lead to pain. Golf clubs that are improperly sized can also contribute to the condition.
“All too often an individual with elbow pain has suboptimal biomechanics in their sport paired with training load and frequency errors,” said Obermire. “Working with a sports physical therapist, you can quickly make modifications that will keep you in the game.”
A proper warm up can help reduce the chance of injury while playing sports. If it’s been a few months or years since you last played, you may need to build back your strength and fitness. Choosing conditioning classes that specifically address your weakness can help you significantly for your sport.
“Pain is your body telling you something is wrong, so don’t keep pushing yourself if it hurts,” said Obermire. “Fortunately, these injuries often get better on their own with minimal intervention. Rest, biomechanical assessment and strengthening are usually my first recommendations to heal and prevent future injury.”
Learn more about sports conditioning classes at Samaritan Athletic Medicine, including one-one-one or small group training.
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