Also called lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is pain located where the forearm and elbow meet, on the outside of the arm. It is a common injury, with most people getting it without actually playing tennis. In most cases, tennis elbow is easily healed with rest and time.
It is a repetitive use injury that happens when the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) muscle develops small tears. The tiny tears increase inflammation and make it painful to grip and lift things. There are cases when tennis elbow is chronic; however, early treatment can help heal it completely.
Tennis elbow is common in adults between thirty and fifty years old, and less than five percent of the diagnosed cases are actually linked to tennis.
Activities that repeatedly cause strain on the muscles surrounding the elbow cause the injury. In tennis, poor technique while hitting backhand can cause tennis elbow. Since tennis is a game of repeat actions, it can happen. Sports like racquetball or squash, or activities like painting and carpentry can also cause tennis elbow.
During the early stages, tennis elbow will present with pain that is located on the outer bony knob of the elbow, and in the muscles and tendons surrounding the outer elbow. In some cases, the pain can radiate into the lower or upper arm. Most people report pain when they lift things, are making a fist or gripping an object, raise their hand, straighten their wrist, open doors, or shake hands. The injury is around the elbow, but the pain area can be a lot larger.
Tennis elbow can be diagnosed in several ways including discussing symptoms with your doctor or having an X-ray or MRI. Thankfully, tennis elbow is a condition with a high success rate of healing, especially if it is caught early. Depending on the severity of the pain and the injury, there are several ways to help heal and prevent tennis elbow.
In most cases, ice, tennis elbow exercises, physical therapy, and anti-inflammatory medication can help clear it up. Specifically, exercise is one of the most critical parts of the rehabilitation process, and continuing those practices after it is healed can help prevent tennis elbow from recurring.
Tennis elbow exercises that are most important include stretching exercises and strengthening exercises. To avoid re-injury or worsening of the condition, activities should only be done when there is no pain. Here’s a look at six different exercises that can help.
Strengthening exercises for tennis elbow are essential but should not be performed if there is any pain before, during, or after the exercises. As part of the rehabilitation and prevention process, strengthening exercises help develop the muscles, so they are able to support the tendons around the elbow, making it easier to handle repetitive motion. Learning how to strengthen the elbow can help significantly. Here are three of the most common strengthening exercises.
Finger Extension Exercise
For the finger extension exercise, you will join your fingertips together to form a peak and place a rubber band around the top part of your fingers. Then, you will open and close your palm 10-20 times against the rubber band.
Isometric Wrist Extension Exercise
Isometric exercises are done statically with no movement. This exercise works best if you have a partner to help resist your movement, but you can also use an object like a table, or your other hand, to help.
To complete this exercise, position your forearm and palm facing downward, supporting it if possible. In this position, try to extend your wrist by lifting it back up, trying to point your fingers upwards toward the sky. Hold the position for five seconds and then release. Rest for a few seconds and then repeat, ten to fifteen times. If doing it correctly, the wrist joint shouldn’t move during the exercise.
Dynamic Wrist Extension Exercise
The dynamic wrist extension is one of the most common exercises to strengthen tennis elbow. It is not advisable to try this one until you are able to complete other exercises entirely without pain. If your injury is recent, within the last five days, it is important to wait. This is an exercise that you don’t want to rush and if you feel any pain while doing it, rest for a few more days before trying again.
You can use a two-pound lightweight with dynamic exercises. Hold the weight and move your wrist downward and upward, or from flexion to extension. When you first start the exercises, do 1 set of 10 repetitions each day and then gradually move toward being able to do three sets of 20 repetitions.
If you don’t have weights, the dynamic wrist extension can also be done with a resistance band. If you choose to use a resistance band, you will rest your forearm on your thigh with your hand and wrist extending beyond your knee. Pin one end of the band underneath your foot and wrap the top end around your hand.
Flex your wrist, point it down to the floor, and make sure the band is pulled taught in this position. Then, extend your wrist while keeping your forearm still and then slowly return to your original starting position. Do this exercise ten to fifteen times at the start and then gradually increase the repetitions.
Tennis elbow stretches can help heal the elbow during rehabilitation, and should be continued even after the injury is completely healed. Just like the strengthening exercises, stretching exercises should not be painful. If pain occurs during or after the stretches, it is important to rest your elbow and try again a few days later. Stretching exercises are meant to be gentle. Here are three of the most common stretching tennis elbow exercises.
Partner Tennis Elbow Stretching
If possible, this stretching exercise should be completed with a partner helping you. To do this exercise, extend your arm out to the side and rotate it inward. Then, you will flex your wrist to help increase the stretch. You will hold the position for 30 seconds at a time and then repeat five times as you are able. The stretch should be done at least three times a day, as long as you can complete it without pain. The process should be gentle and slow.
Wrist Extensor Stretching
The wrist extensor stretching exercise starts with your arm in front of you with your hand pointing downward. You will pull your hand toward your body and feel the stretch on the back part of your wrist, elbow, and forearm. If you feel like you need to increase your stretch, you can rotate your forearm inwards, which will be felt on the outside of your elbow.
You will hold this exercise for twenty seconds and then repeat up to five times. Just like each of the other exercises, it is important to be gentle and slow, and pain-free. Stretching exercises are meant to heal tennis elbow and help keep your muscles flexible, so there is no re-injury occurrence.
Neural Stretch Exercise
There is a link between elbow pain and neck tension. Performing this neural stretch may help release neck tension, and in turn, reduce the pain from tennis elbow. Neural stretches are common during sports massages because of their benefit.
To do this stretch, you will turn your palm outward while stretching your neck. Initially, you will hold your position for a maximum of five seconds, as long as it is comfortable. If you feel any tingling or pain in your hand or arm, it is vital to stop this exercise and rest longer before trying again.
If you do not experience any pain, you should work up to holding this stretch for up to ten seconds.
Because tennis elbow is a common ailment for athletes and people who perform repetitive tasks in their job, the time it takes to heal can feel like a long time. Getting back to your regular activities is the ultimate goal, but if you don’t take the proper time to recover, you may damage your tendon worse or find yourself with chronic tennis elbow.
Some of the signs that show you have healed and are ready to get back to your regular activities are:
- Being able to grip objects without pain.
- Being able to bear weight on your elbow or arm without pain.
- Feeling like your injured elbow is equally as strong as your non-injured elbow.
- Being able to flex and move your elbow without pain.
Whether you have had tennis elbow or you are trying to prevent it, doing proper stretches before and after an activity is crucial. If you are recovering from injury and want to avoid re-injury, not only is stretching important but icing it after exertion can help as well.
Tennis elbow is painful, and if not caught early, can be a chronic issue. The six strengthening and stretching exercises listed here are excellent for helping with the healing process and reducing the risk of future problems. Luckily, tennis elbow is a treatable condition that does not require surgery or other drastic measures. Rest, stretching, strengthening, and being conscious of repetitive movement can help improve and heal the condition.