Ouch! The pain experienced from tennis elbow can be excruciating and debilitating for anyone who suffers from this condition.
Don’t think you have to be a tennis player to experience it either.
Any activity that leads to overusing the elbow can cause the pain which occurs outside the elbow, usually on the dominant arm, and is actually very common, affecting 1 in 3 people.
Luckily, tennis elbow treatment can be very successful.
Who can get Tennis Elbow?
While tennis players are prone to this condition- hence its name- tennis elbow can afflict anyone who repetitively moves their arm, elbow and wrist as part of their work or hobby. People who garden, those who play video games a lot, people who paint or knit, and people in jobs such as carpentry and cleaning are all prone to tennis elbow.
As many as 10 million Americans may suffer from tennis elbow. The pain can be caused by repetitive tasks using the hand, wrist and arm.
— Cleveland Clinic (@ClevelandClinic) June 6, 2016
What is Tennis Elbow, Exactly?
Tennis elbow is a strain or partial tear in the muscles and tendon tissues that are attached to the elbow joint, causing an intense pain in the outer elbow area. The strain occurs when the muscles and tendons are overworked, making tennis elbow a treatable disease that is known medically as lateral epicondylitis.
How to Know if you Have Tennis Elbow?
In order to understand this condition and to know whether this is what you are suffering from, you need to know some of the symptoms.
Three of the most common signs of tennis elbow are:
- Experiencing pain on the outside of the elbow, sometimes quite suddenly
- Severe pain when shaking hands or squeezing objects
- Worsened pain when using the wrist strength to do an everyday activity such as using cutlery or brushing your teeth
You will not see any bruising or even inflammation by looking at your arm or elbow- in fact there will be very few physical signs of tennis elbow, although the pain is certainly something you will feel. Without treatment, tennis elbow will get worse over time.
How to get Diagnosed for Tennis Elbow?
The unusual and sometimes frustrating thing with tennis elbow is that it is not diagnosed in ways such as by getting a blood test or x-rays, as these won’t reveal anything. The only way your doctor can diagnose tennis elbow is through observing your arm, wrist and elbow and using your pain description to identify if tennis elbow is what you are in fact suffering from.
Your doctor may order you to get an MRI which can give a more definitive answer and also rule out any other conditions which also cause elbow pain. You could have a small break or fracture that is the real cause of the swelling that is causing you pain.
How to Treat Tennis Elbow at Home?
Want to know the best part?
The good news is that tennis elbow very rarely requires surgery and can actually be treated effectively through other ways. The methods your doctor or physiotherapist will recommend will depend on how severe the pain is, as well as other factors related to your overall health.
In whatever treatment is used, the purpose will be to reduce inflammation, promote healing and reduce the amount of stress that is being put on the elbow, so that eventually you can have full use of your arm again.
Often, the best treatment is no treatment- resting your elbow so that it can effectively heal is usually very effective in reducing the symptoms. This might be difficult if you are an active person, used to using your arm to play sports, or if you have a job or hobby that is difficult for you to do without using your elbow.
For sporty people, you should try playing sports or exercising in ways that don’t place undue stress on the elbow. These might include jogging, running, cycling, walking, stretching, or lower body resistance training. For doing other activities that require using your elbow, you might need to implement some modifications. You should find a new way do the tasks you need to do so you avoid making the movements that bring on the pain- usually this is lifting, gripping or twisting your arm.
Tennis elbow home-treatments and exercises that you might be given include:
Heat/Ice and Elevation
A tried and true way of reducing pain caused by inflammation is to use either heat or ice, depending on which stage of injury you are in.
When you first start to experience pain in your arm and you are still in the acute stage of injury, then ice or cold packs work best. Apply to the pain point for 10-15 minutes a few times a day, putting a thin cloth between the ice pack and your skin.
If you have been experiencing the pain for a while and would be classified as having a chronic injury, then heat may be more effective in improving blood flow to your injured muscles and tendons. You can try putting a moist hot pack, a hot water bottle or a rice heating bag that you heat in the microwave around your elbow and forearm. Apply to your elbow twice a day for 10 minute intervals to help initiate healing.
It can also be helpful to elevate your elbow by propping it up on a cushion or pillow when you sleep or while you are icing or heating to help stop inflammation.
Another easy thing to try is gentle stretching of your forearm muscles. This will help to improve the flexibility in your arm and decrease any stiffness you may be experiencing.
One suggested stretch is to put your arms in front of you in a prayer position, and to move your arms up and down while keeping that pose. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times 3-5 times per day. You should only feel a slight pull and not feel any pain when stretching this way.
Some other exercises you can try to improve overall flexibility and to reduce the stiffness you feel in your arm include:
Wrist Flexion Stretch
- Hold your injured arm out straight, palm down.
- Use your other hand to hold the back of your injured arm’s hand.
- Press down so your fingers point to the ground.
- You should feel a light stretch on the top of your forearm. Do not stretch to the point of pain.
Wrist Extension Stretch
- Hold your injured arm out straight, palm up.
- Use your other hand to hold the palm of your hand and press down.
- You should feel a light stretch on the top of your forearm. Do not stretch to the point of pain.
Performing simple self-massage by applying firm pressure over the area of your arm where it is sore can be helpful in reducing the pain you feel. Use two fingers in your opposite hand to rub in a circular motion for about 5 minutes for a simple yet effective massage. Physio can also be useful for strengthening and stretching your muscles.
You don’t want to completely immobilize your arm when you have tennis elbow or golfer’s arm. It is recommended by experts that doing exercise that target the weakness in your forearm extensor muscles and tendons will help to make your recovery time quicker.
A gentle stretching exercise can be performed by squeezing a tennis ball, which is an easy way to target the forearm flexors and small muscles that are used for gripping. Simply grip and squeeze the ball for 3 seconds, then release. Work your way up to holding the squeeze for as long as you can. Do this exercise for 10 squeezes, twice every other day to strengthen the tendons and muscles.
This will help to stop your pain and also contribute to keeping your tennis elbow away permanently.
Braces and Sleeves
The use of a compression brace and sleeve is a great pain management tool. It will help to reduce the gripping forces that cause the pain away from your damaged tendons. Your brace will work to ease pain in two ways. First, the copper-infused compression sleeve can reduce the inflammation and provide support to the muscles by enhancing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the muscle. This helps to minimise the pressure in the muscle before it reaches the pain point in your elbow.
An elbow brace can also help to compress the pain point to provide targeted comfort, while the inner gel pad will also soothe and provide added support to the most painful areas. A brace should be worn for all activities that you do throughout the day.
It might seem like a strange tennis elbow treatment method, but cleaning up your diet can be effective in reducing inflammation, not just in your injured arm or elbow, but throughout your body. Reducing the amount of inflammation in your body will decrease the pain you feel and will be particularly helpful with managing ongoing injury. A diet that is void of grains, red meat, dairy and sugar for 30 days will really help to alleviate pain caused from excess inflammation.
You also want to have a strong and healthy immune system so that your body can repair itself faster. You want to make sure your damaged tendons have mineral rich blood that allows fast healing to take place. Vitamin C is also known to help in the repair of damaged tendons and Vitamin B6 and B3 can reduce inflammation and swelling.
How to Fix Tennis Elbow with Physical Therapy?
A last resort if your pain persists after trying these home therapies is to try physiotherapy. A good physiotherapist can conduct massage and ultrasound that will help to treat the point of the pain.
What about Medications?
Also a last resort, your doctor might prescribe the use of pain-killers or anti-inflammatory drugs to help your pain and swelling, though these should be used judiciously. They will help with the pain but not treating the root cause of the pain and there can be some side effects to avoid.
Some doctors might use steroids which can be injected into the pain point. Cortisone is usually only reserved for the most severe cases but will help to reduce the pain and discomfort you are feeling as well as to minimize swelling.
There are also cortisol gels and creams which can be rubbed into the pain point, and will be absorbed into the skin directly to the muscles. While these might not be as effective as an injection, they can be helpful to people with light to medium pain.
Sometimes specialists might use shock wave therapy, or alternative therapies such as acupuncture with reasonable success in minimizing the pain over a short period.
How Long will Tennis Elbow Condition Last?
Within four months of following the protocol recommended by your doctor, you should notice your tennis elbow has responded well. In rare cases of severe cases of tennis elbow, surgery might be needed to remove the damaged tendon or repair it. Most surgical procedures for tennis elbow involve removing diseased muscle and reattaching healthy muscle back to bone.
The right surgical approach for you will depend on a range of factors. These include the scope of your injury, your general health, and your personal needs.
If you rest your arm by avoiding activities that bring on the symptoms, and follow these pain relief options, then the pain will settle with time. You should feel better within a year, though it could be anywhere from 6 months to 2 years before complete healing might be felt.
Is it Possible to Avoid Tennis Elbow?
Prevention is always better than cure, and it is possible to prevent yourself from getting tennis elbow.
Be particularly cautious if you have the risk factors such as doing activities that require repetitive use of your elbow. When playing racquet sports like tennis and squash, improper stroke technique and improper equipment can increase the risk, so be sure to use good form when playing these kind of sports, and use equipment that is appropriate for your ability, body size, and body strength. You may want to consider having a sports trainer or a person who is familiar with specific sports equipment check yours to make sure it is suitable and that you are using it accurately.
Other ways to prevent tennis elbow include:
- Not overusing your arm with repeated movements that can injure your tendon. For example, alternate hands during activities, if possible.
- Strengthening the muscles of your arm, shoulder, and upper back to help take stress off of your elbow.
- Wearing a compression brace during activities that require grasping or twisting arm movements if you are high risk, can help provide support and distribute pressure from muscle use throughout the arm, easing pressure on the tendon.
Once you have healed your tennis elbow, you will want to take it easy to begin with so you don’t damage the tendon and muscles again. Keeping your elbows healthy should be part of your overall wellness routine so you can be fighting fit and to avoid suffering pain.