Love playing tennis, but hate that pain you get in your elbow? It can be difficult to treat tennis elbow, and there’s lots of conflicting advice out there. Find out what tennis elbow is, and what really works. Let’s look at the best ways to treat tennis elbow.
What’s going on in your elbow?
To treat tennis elbow effectively, we need to be clear about what’s happening. Although its technical name is ‘lateral epicondylitis’ (‘-itis’ meaning ‘inflammation’), studies show there’s only a limited amount of inflammation present.
Rather, it’s an overuse injury of the extensor tendons at the outside of your elbow. This happens when the tendons can’t keep up with the ‘wear and repair’ cycle that is the normal process when they are under repeated load. The tendons are in a state of breakdown. But that doesn’t mean they can’t heal, given the chance!
Who gets tennis elbow?
Although we call it tennis elbow, it’s common in people who do hard or repetitive work with their hands (such as a lot of typing). So don’t think that your elbow pain can’t be tennis elbow if you don’t play tennis!
In addition, there are other factors beyond usage that make you vulnerable to tennis elbow. For example, smokers are twice as likely to develop it as non-smokers. Stress, genetics, poor sleep and ill-health are also factors. These are things that contribute to all kinds of health problems.
People with nerve irritation in the neck are particularly vulnerable. However, it’s not clear if this is because elbow pain is a symptom of neck problems. It’s possible that the nerve irritation has a negative impact on the health of the tissues in the arm, making them less able to withstand overload.
How to treat tennis elbow
The key to dealing with an overuse injury is to allow the natural repair mechanisms to catch up. That means rest. You need to give the tendon time to heal by avoiding the activities that aggravate your elbow.
Of course, jobs and lifestyles don’t always allow for complete rest. Using a compression strap can allow you to continue with unavoidable activity whilst taking the strain off the tendons.
The use of ice for tendon problems has shifted in and out of favour in recent years. In part, this is because we’ve come to understand that there’s very little inflammation going on in the tendon, so using ice might seem a waste of time. However, ice has two great benefits: in the short-term, it’s a cheap and effective painkiller; and in the longer term, it’s useful in stimulating tissue repair.
Ice often – every half-hour to hour at first – preferably with a piece of ice directly on the skin, for 2-3 minutes until the area is numb. Then let it warm up again before repeating.
Although the primary issue is in the tendon, muscular tension can contribute to the problem. In addition, a good deal of the ache in your arm arises from tired, tight muscles. Give them a stretch – but take it slow and easy, you don’t want to yank on the sore tendon too much.
Another useful tip is to mobilise your joints – wrist, elbow and shoulder. This prevents too much protective stiffness developing and reinforces the neurological pathways. The idea is to remind your brain that it’s okay to move. Try some simple circling motions.
Good rehab is key if you want to treat tennis elbow successfully. You’ll find lots of talk about ‘eccentric’ loading in the treatment of tendon problems (that’s when a muscle lengthens whilst it’s taking load – like your biceps when you straighten your arm with a weight in your hand). However, recent research suggests load management is more important than the type of contraction.
Improving strength and flexibility in your arm will not only help your struggling tendon to heal and adapt. It will also help prevent another tennis elbow episode cropping up in the future. An osteopath or other therapist can help devise a rehab programme to fit your needs.
5. See your osteopath
Or other qualified, experienced manual therapist!
Osteopathy is perfectly placed to treat tennis elbow. Here at OCHK, your osteopath will work directly on the local muscle, tendon and joints, easing tension and improving mobility. Soft tissue release is an effective way to treat tennis elbow.
But they’ll also look further afield. What has caused this tendon to fail now? Are there other underlying factors or changes that can be addressed?
Perhaps your neck needs some release. Or maybe your wrist is extending too hard during your overhead serve because your shoulder or upper back are stiff. You’d need to extend your wrist further to compensate. Or could it even be that back pain that’s disturbed your sleep for so long and made you vulnerable to other injuries? Your osteopath will consider all these issues, and more. So why wait? Book in today and get it sorted.