Active adults are no doubt familiar with aches and pains. Whether you’re a jogger, a swimmer, or a tennis aficionado, consistent and intense exercise can lead to all kinds of intermittent or chronic symptoms that impact your ability to perform your favorite activities, or even to function in daily life.
Those who repeatedly strain the forearm extensor muscles may eventually suffer from a form of tendonitis known colloquially as tennis elbow (so called because of the prevalence of the condition among tennis players). You don’t have to be a tennis player to get tennis elbow, though – many repetitive motions can cause the tendons in your forearm to become inflamed, resulting in pain and possibly limiting mobility.
Regardless of the cause, you’ll want to seek diagnosis and treatment in order to put the kibosh on pain and resume normal activities. That’s just tennis elbow 101. If you think you might have tennis elbow, here are a few things you should know about symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.
Tennis Elbow Symptoms
The main symptom of tennis elbow is inflammation of the tendons, which will almost certainly cause you pain. You’re likely to experience pain around the elbow first, especially the bony protrusion on the outside of your elbow where the tendons of your forearm connect. This pain may spread down your forearm or extend up toward your shoulder. If you feel pain on the inside of your elbow, you likely suffer from a related condition called golfer’s elbow. Either way, you’ll want to seek immediate diagnosis so as to avoid doing further harm.
When you suffer from tennis elbow, you may find that you experience more intense pain symptoms when gripping with your thumb and your first two fingers, making a fist, or lifting even lightweight objects. Common activities like shaking hands or turning a doorknob could cause pain, as could raising your hand or straightening your wrist. Obviously, the activities that initially brought on this condition could also cause you pain.
It’s important to seek professional diagnosis and care. Even if you’re careful, tennis elbow may not go away on its own, especially if you continue to perform the repetitive motions that caused muscle strain, stress on tendons, and microtears leading to inflammation in the first place.
When you visit a physician to diagnose your elbow pain, you’ll likely start with a battery of questions about your profession and leisure activities to help determine if tennis elbow is likely. Physical pursuits like tennis, squash, racquetball, and weight lifting are common causes of tennis elbow, but even seemingly benign activities like painting, knitting, raking, and vacuuming could be to blame.
Professions involving repetitive motion could also increase risk factors for tennis elbow, especially if you use a keyboard and mouse day in and day out, as many professionals these days do. Following questions about your lifestyle, your doctor will perform a physical exam to test for signs of tennis elbow, including asking you to flex your wrist, arm, and elbow and report location and levels of pain. If the diagnosis is still uncertain, you may need x-rays or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to see if you have tennis elbow and rule out other potential causes of pain.
Recommended Treatment for Tennis Elbow
Although the symptoms of tennis elbow can range from mild discomfort to shooting pains, there is a silver lining. This condition is relatively easy to treat and there are a number of potential treatment options available to you.
If your condition is mild, your doctor may recommend nothing more than resting your arm, icing your elbow every few hours over the course of several days to reduce inflammation, and possibly using OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen as needed until symptoms subside. You could begin to feel relief in as little as a couple of days and be fully recovered in about two weeks. For more serious cases, you may have to temporarily immobilize your arm with a sling to keep you from moving it and unwittingly causing further damage.
Of course, since repetitive motion is the most common cause of tennis elbow, you’ll likely want to pinpoint the activities that are the root cause of your condition so that you can find ways to reduce or eliminate them. This is tennis elbow 101. If you’re dealing with ongoing issues with tennis elbow related to recreational activities like sports, it may be time to find a new form of exercise.
However, if pain is related to typing on a keyboard and moving a mouse all day for work, you may not have that option. Talk-to-text software could provide some respite from using your computer, but you might also want to look into ergonomic office solutions like keyboards, chairs, and even desks designed to put less stress on your wrists and arms.
Physical therapy may also be recommended as a means of stretching and strengthening arm muscles, potentially helping you to avoid the strain on your elbow, wrist, and forearm that are causing inflammation and pain in tendons. While there are stretches and other exercises you can do on your own at home (and a physical therapist will almost certainly give you homework of this nature), you still need to see a professional to ensure that you’re doing these therapies correctly.
Chiropractic care is another option to consider when dealing with tennis elbow, and these therapies can help to decrease pain, increase flexibility and range of motion, and improve function in your daily life. Some chiropractors use advanced therapies like cold lasers to reduce inflammation and speed recovery of damaged soft tissues. You should also look for chiropractors that are skilled with myofascial release to pinpoint areas of chronic stress, relieve pain, and restore range of motion.
A final treatment to consider is steroid injections, but this should be used only as a last resort. In truth, many physicians will hesitate to recommend this treatment because it isn’t suitable for long-term treatment, and it could end up doing more harm than good if patients think they’re cured and continue to practice harmful activities. You’re much better off choosing treatment options that allow you to recover fully and prevent further issues with tennis elbow.