We’re not talking about a sore elbow caused by switching between the red button too many times trying to keep up with Andy Murray’s progress. Tennis elbow, or to give it its Sunday name, lateral epicondylitis, is a reactive tendon pathology which affects the top of the forearm and the outside of the elbow. Three fancy words to describe a problem with the structure which attaches your muscle to your bone.
You’ll not be surprised to find that the main symptom is pain, often described as “burning”, and there can be stiffness too. Tennis elbow starts with an overload to the tendon, usually through strenuous or repetitive activity (like tennis, funnily enough). Oddly, tennis isn’t the main cause for tennis elbow; we see lots of people with symptoms who work at computers, or work repetitively with tools, or even have poor lifting techniques in the gym.
Men and women are equally affected, and the dominant arm is 3 times more likely to be the sore one. Elbow movements are usually fairly pain free, but resisted wrist extension can be particularly uncomfortable.
Common causes include:
- gripping or squeezing
- lifting and carrying (when you’re unused to this activity, e.g. moving house, DIY)
- using screwdrivers/hammers or painting
- lifting awkwardly or holdings items and twisting
When the tendon is overloaded, or overused, your body reacts by creating new fibres to replace any damaged ones. The problem occurs when there is an overproliferation of new cells, and the tendon becomes swollen and painful. If the thickened tendon is not treated, it can eventually degenerate. But that’s why we’re here!
Usually symptoms will resolve themselves over a couple of weeks, and you can do lots to help yourself.
Modifying your movements
Instead of gripping and twisting things, try lifting them with your elbow bend and your palm up (not so great with coffee cups, but good for items of clothing, piles of paper etc).
We’re not doctors or pharmacists here, so always ask appropriate advice if you need it. Usually though, your normal painkiller or anti-inflammatory will help your pain, or you could use an anti-inflammatory cream like Voltarol over the muscles at the top of your forearm. You could also use an ice pack to help cool the area, but be careful not to induce ice burns (these are nasty).
Some simple stretches can really relieve the pain of tennis elbow if done several times throughout the day, and held without pain (if it’s burning and aching, ease off the stretch a little). Here is an example of the wrist wrist and elbow being stretched:
Often where there’s pain, there’s a reluctance to use certain muscles and this can lead to weakness. One of the best ways to treat tendinopathies (and tennis elbow is one) is to use eccentric exercise. This is controlled lengthening of a muscle. Using a small weight (a tin of beans is ideal or a small dumbbell is easier to grip), palm facing the floor and elbow resting on a table, slowly lower the weight. Use your other hand to help bend the wrist back up, and start again.
If you do find that your arm pain is more severe, disturbing your sleep or interfering with your daily activites, or it has lasted longer than 2 weeks and doesn’t seem to be settling, call us. We can provide lots of different therapies, including exercise and advice on how to avoid future problems. You can usually see a physiotherapist within 48 hours of contacting us by phone (0141 2372 721) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).