With its deceptively simple name, tennis elbow sounds like it could be something worth including when you pack your tennis bag. Tennis racquet? Check. Tennis shoes? Check. Tennis elbow?
Whether you play tennis or not, however, tennis elbow is the one thing you do not want along for the ride. Affecting the outside area of the elbow, it is essentially a muscle and tendon injury that can make everyday activities like shaking hands, opening jars or brushing your teeth a painful ordeal.
Tennis elbow occurs when the muscle tissue attached to the arm bone at the elbow, called the lateral epicondyle, is damaged by overuse or by exposure to more force than healthy tissue can handle. Golfer’s elbow refers to the same condition occurring on the inside of the elbow to the medial epicondyle. The back or posterior part of the elbow can also be affected, and stiffness can transfer to the neck region.
You don’t actually have to play tennis to suffer from tennis elbow. In fact, while tennis elbow affects nearly half of all tennis players during their careers, the condition is more likely to strike when you’re gardening, vacuuming or sweeping. Any activity that requires repetitive arm, wrist, hand or elbow movement can trigger the dull ache which is a sign of damage to the muscles and tendons around the outside of the elbow. Excessive activities involving gripping or repetitive unfamiliar actions can also contribute to the condition, which can be exacerbated by tight muscles and weak forearms.
You may be surprised to discover that, unlike other muscular injuries, tennis elbow is not due to inflammation, but rather to an increase in the chemicals which transmit pain in the nerves. Instead of developing suddenly, the pain associated with tennis elbow increases slowly around the outside of the elbow, and sufferers will experience tenderness around the affected elbow bump. The real pain of the condition comes from trying to do anything that involves grasping objects, opening the fingers or moving the wrist.
The good news is that tennis elbow is considered a self-limiting condition, so the tendons will eventually heal. In some cases, however, this may take up to a year to happen, so it’s worth doing whatever you can to promote recovery. In addition to the usual treatments like rest and ice, it is important that you visit your physiotherapist, who will apply a range of manual therapies to relieve the pain and encourage healing to the affected area. With the appropriate treatment plan, and regular exercises to strengthen your wrists and forearms, you’ll soon be picking things up again in the kitchen and on the court!