Your doctor has told you that you have “tennis elbow.” This is extremely puzzling to you since you haven’t picked up a tennis racket in years. While it is true that tennis players are prone to developing this condition, others suffer from tennis elbow as well. Tennis elbow occurs when the tendons and muscles of the wrist and the arm are overworked – and it can be very painful.
Understanding Tennis Elbow
A tendon is a piece of tough, flexible tissue in the body that connects a muscle to a bone. The muscles in the body are responsible for creating movement in your joints. When the muscles tighten to create a motion, the tendons act as elastic bands; and this helps move the bones as part of bodily movements.
The tendon involved in tennis elbow is attached from the forearm muscles to the bony part of the arm outside of the elbow. Its purpose is to help an individual straighten his or her wrist and fingers. With excessive or repeated use of the arm and the elbow, stress can build up on this tendon and cause small tears to develop and become inflamed. If these injuries are not allowed to heal fully, the tears can develop again, which over time leads to the formation of rough and bumpy tissue. The inflamed tendon can also cut off blood flow through the arm and compress the radial nerve, which is one of the major nerves that control the muscles in the arm and hand. As a result, the person will experience pain when the arm is used for even simple movements such as turning a door knob.
The risk of tennis elbow is increased in people who frequently use their hands during routine work or as part of their daily profession, like plumbers, painters, gardeners, and carpenters. The tendons in the elbow can also be injured by overuse of the forearm muscles during repetitive actions such as using scissors or typing. Besides tennis, athletic activities which often cause tennis elbow include swimming, racquetball, squash, golf, fencing, or any sports that involve throwing movements. A person may also suffer from the condition if he or she resumes playing a sport after a long time away from the game.
A person suffering from tennis elbow may experience varying degrees of pain and soreness in the elbow. The pain can range from mild discomfort when the arm is used to an ache severe enough to interfere with sleep. The location of the pain is usually on the outside of the elbow, though it may radiate down the forearm.
This pain generally develops over a period of days, weeks, or even months. It is noticeable when the person engages in gripping or twisting movements or when performing routine movements such as opening a door handle or shaking hands with someone. Other symptoms may include morning elbow stiffness, muscle weakness, and aches throughout the day.
The doctor will inquire about the location of the pain as well as the activities that trigger it. The patient may be also asked about any injuries sustained to the arm or elbow in the past.
There are some simple tests that can help the doctor evaluate the forearm muscles. These may include fully extending the arm and attempting to straighten the wrist and fingers against resistance to see if these movements cause pain. If they do, it indicates that those muscles may not be healthy.
Often, an X-ray image of the elbow may be taken to determine if the bone was injured and to help rule out other possible causes of elbow pain such as arthritis or a bone fracture.
The most effective treatment for tennis elbow is also the most effective way to relieve the pain: to rest the affected arm. The doctor may instruct the patient to apply ice on the affected area or take over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen to ease the pain. If the pain is severe, a corticosteroid medication may be injected into the inflamed area of the elbow. Many individuals will feel their pain disappear within a few weeks after having a steroid injection.
The doctor may also refer the patient to a physical therapist who may recommend wearing a wrist splint or forearm band. These splints can help relieve pain symptoms and promote healing. Therapists may also recommend specific movement exercises that are designed to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the forearm. Such exercises may be incorporated into a regimen involving ice massage or muscle-stimulating techniques that can improve muscle healing.
Surgery is only advised if the symptoms do not respond to other measures after six to 12 months. During the surgical procedure, the diseased tissue is removed and the healthy tissue is reattached back to bone. This type of surgery can often be done arthroscopically using a series of small incisions. After this procedure, the elbow is usually placed in a small splint for a few weeks.
The occurrence and recurrence of tennis elbow can be reduced or controlled by minimizing constant use of the same muscles. This can be accomplished by wearing medical sleeves or braces on the arms, using machines to perform repetitive tasks, or engaging in a variety of tasks at once in order to use different sets of muscles.
Before participating in a sport that involves repetitive arm movements, it may be a good idea to get some professional advice about using the right playing technique. In addition, warming up before practice or competition and gently stretching the arm muscles will help avoid injury and strain to the elbow. Simple measures such as using the correct equipment (such as rackets or clubs) and icing your arm after you have completed playing will help prevent excess strain on the arm tendons. A physiotherapist can suggest suitable exercises to strengthen the forearm muscles and prevent tennis elbow from occurring.
Tennis elbow can be very painful, but preventive measures can go a long way in reducing the odds of developing the condition. For those who do suffer from tennis elbow, it is vital to not ignore or accept the pain and take the necessary steps to return to optimal health. Otherwise, even simple movements and activities will become laborious chores, and quality of life will diminish substantially.