What is tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow – in medical terms, lateral epicondylalgia – is an umbrella term for a range of injuries affecting the forearm and wrist extensor muscles along with their tendons and the radial nerve running through them. The action of tennis backhand is precisely the kind of movement that can cause it, meaning tennis players are easily affected, but in the vast majority of cases those suffering from tennis elbow have never even picked up a racquet!
How does tennis elbow feel?
Sufferers of tennis elbow describe an aching of your outer elbow, possibly tender to touch, sometimes with sharp pains with certain movements such as shaking hands or turning the tap. This is usually accompanied by a feeling of tightness or pulling in the muscles on the back of your forearm and hand.
How did I get tennis elbow?
For the tennis players out there, the name gives you a big hint! For everyone else, there are many actions that might be the culprit, from opening cans to lifting technique, opening doors, even deskwork or pouring drinks. The specific movements are:
- Pulling your hand back towards your elbow (like a tennis backhand)
- Bending your wrist sideways (left or right)
- Turning your hand over (palm up or down)
Notice these are all wrist movements, but the pain occurs in your elbow. This is because the tendons connecting your wrist to your elbow are being aggravated. When the muscles are repeatedly overused the tendons get irritated, and a vicious cycle of tightening and aggravation takes over your entire forearm.
How can a physiotherapist help?
If you have elbow pain, the first thing a physiotherapist can do is determine whether or not it is this repetitive movement of the wrist that is causing your problems – the muscles, joints and nerves of the neck, shoulder, and upper back will also be tested as they may contribute, either wholly or in part, to the pain you are experiencing.
Once a diagnosis of tennis elbow is made, there are several treatment options.
- Soft tissue massage can soothe your tight, overused muscles and unload your tendons, helping to break the irritation cycle
- Support options compression stockings, sports tape, braces – that can be fitted to aid the affected area as you heal
- Ice and ultrasound
- Stretches and strengthening exercises that specifically target the affected areas can also be prescribed – these will involve strengthening the forearm muscles in a lengthened position, enabling them to withstand repeated loading without overly stressing your tendons.
An important step is working with the physiotherapist to identify the activities that cause the aggravation. Temporarily abstaining from these movements, allowing your muscles to rest, is part of any treatment plan. In many instances, the ergonomics of your environment – desk position, chair height, even the way you swing your racquet – are important contributors to the condition, and simple changes to your technique can be the key to helping those tendons recover.
You may also require strengthening programs for the shoulder and upper trunk about the shoulder blades to help to support the upper limb more efficiently and decrease the loads on the forearms, elbow and wrist. This can include Pilates based exercise, weights and theraband resisted training.
Early intervention is the best medicine, so if you start to feel dull aches or sharp pains, tell us – physiotherapy will prevent it from getting worse and ultimately manage your return to full, painless function.
If you are suffering from tennis elbow call us, we can help