Tennis elbow is a painful condition caused by overuse of the “extensor” muscles in your arm and forearm, particularly where the tendons attach to rounded projections of bone (epicondyles) on the outside or lateral aspect of the elbow. The muscles you use to grip, twist, and carry objects with your hand all attach to the “lateral epicondyle” at the elbow. That’s why a movement of the wrist or hand can actually cause pain in the elbow.
Prolonged use of the wrist and hand, such as when using a computer or operating machinery —and, of course, playing tennis with an improper grip or technique—can lead to tennis elbow. It can happen to athletes, non-athletes, children, and adults. It occurs more often in men than women, and most commonly affects people between the ages of 30 and 50.
What is tennis elbow?
Your spine is made up of 33 vertebrae that are stacked on top of one another. Between each of these vertebrae is a rubbery piece of cartilage called an “intervertebral disk.” Imagine the disk as a tire, with gelatin filling the hole in the tire. The tire is called the “annulus,” and the gelatin is called the “nucleus.” When we’re young—under 30 years of age—the disk is made mostly of gelatin. As we age, and sometimes with injury or excessive wear and tear, we start to lose some of that gelatin, and the volume of the disk decreases, resulting in less space between the vertebrae. The disk becomes flatter and less flexible, leaving less space between each set of vertebrae. Sometimes bone spurs form in response to this degeneration of the disk, making the spine stiff. When the rough surfaces of the vertebral joints rub together, pain and inflammation may result. Nerves may become irritated or compressed.
Disk degeneration might occur throughout several regions of the spine, or it might be limited to one disk. When it’s part of the natural aging process, the degeneration does not always lead to pain. For some people, however, it can cause a great deal of pain and disability.
Your symptoms may include:
- Pain that radiates into your forearm and wrist
- Difficulty doing common tasks, such as turning a doorknob or holding a coffee cup
- Difficulty with gripping activities
- Increased pain when you use your wrist and hand for lifting objects, opening a jar, or gripping something tightly, such as a knife and fork
- Stiffness in the elbow
- Weakness in the forearm, wrist, or hand
How can a physical therapist help?
The First 24 to 48 Hours
For the first 24 to 48 hours after acute onset of your pain, treatment includes:
- Resting the arm by avoiding certain activities and modifying the way you do others
- Using 10-20 minute ice treatments
- Using elastic bandages or supports to take the pressure off of the painful muscles
The physical therapists at Progressive Physical Therapy will decide if you should use a brace or support to protect your muscles while the area is healing. Depending on severity, your therapist may recommend that you consult with another health care provider for further testing or for consideration of additional treatment such as medication. In rare cases, treatments such as cortisone injection or surgery might be needed. Your physical therapist can help you determine whether you need a referral to another health care provider.
Your physical therapist can design a specific treatment program to speed your recovery. There will very likely be exercises and other treatments that you will be expected to do at home. Your physical therapist also might use special physical therapy treatments to help relieve pain, such as manual therapy, special exercises, and ice or heat treatments or both.
For an “acute” case of tennis elbow—one that has occurred within the past few weeks— it’s important to treat as early as possible. Left untreated, tennis elbow may become chronic and last for months and sometimes even years. This is especially true if treatment is focused only on relieving pain and not on correcting the muscle weakness and bad habits that might have led to your condition in the first place.
Improve Your Ability to Move
Your physical therapist may use manual therapy to enable your joints and muscles to move more freely with less pain.
Improve Your Strength
Insufficient muscle strength can lead to tennis elbow. Sometimes the weakness is in the muscles of the wrist and forearm. In many cases, the problem stems from weakness of the supporting postural, or “core,” muscles. In fact, you might find that it is necessary to improve your overall level of fitness to help manage your elbow condition. Based on the evaluation, your physical therapist can determine the type and amount of exercises that are right for you.
Physical therapists prescribe several types of exercises during recovery from tennis elbow:
- Early in the treatment, when the pain is most intense, your therapist may recommend passive exercises in which your wrist and elbow are moved without the use of your muscles.
- As your symptoms improve, you can move the wrist and elbow actively without assistance.
- As the muscles become stronger and the symptoms have lessened, you will be able to begin using weights or resistance bands to further increase your strength. The amount of weight will need to be carefully monitored to make sure you continue to progress and avoid re-injuring your muscles.
Use Your Muscles the Right Way
Your physical therapist can help you retrain your muscles so that you use them properly. For example, when you lift a heavy grocery bag, you should contract the muscles around your shoulder blade and trunk to provide support for your arm muscles. This simple movement can be easily taught to you by a physical therapist can lessen the stress to the injured muscles and help you return to your normal activities while avoiding re-injury.
Return to Your Activities
Your physical therapist will help you remain active by teaching you how to modify your daily activities to avoid pain and further injury. Sometimes it’s necessary to make changes at work, on the playing field, or in the home. Your physical therapist can help you make simple modifications to your work site, your computer set-up, your kitchen devices, your sports equipment, and even your gardening tools to lessen the strain to your hand, wrist, and forearm. Your therapist will emphasize the importance of taking stretch breaks so that your muscles get frequent rest from repetitive movements and standing or sitting in the same position.
Tennis may be a contributing factor to tennis elbow for several reasons. Sometimes the problem results from over-training. In other cases, the weight of the racquet or its grip may need to be adjusted. For others, the problem may stem from improper form, poor overall fitness, or a lack of strength in the supporting or “core” muscles of the trunk and shoulder blades. A physical therapist can help analyze the source of the problem and help find a solution.