Could you be suffering from tennis elbow and not realise it?
The most common kind of elbow pain is a condition known as lateral epicondylalgia – or tennis elbow. Ironically, you also don’t need to be a tennis player to get tennis elbow. Many who have suffered from tennis elbow, actually do not play tennis. It’s also important to point out that recovery from tennis elbow requires a proactive approach involving diagnosis, treatment and strengthening. Through rest alone, your recovery will be very slow.
The causes of tennis elbow
This type of problem can occur at any age, but is most common between the ages of 35 and 50. Predictably, it is more common in your dominant arm but can affect both. The biggest misconception about this type of elbow pain is you don’t have to be a tennis player to get this condition. In fact it is just as common in people who repetitively overuse their forearm muscles such as office workers or tradespeople.
A huge contributing factor to this condition which can be easily forgotten is referred pain from the neck or shoulder. This can either mimic symptoms of tennis elbow, or most commonly there is a combination of elbow and neck, shoulder or thoracic spine issues. You will need to have a thorough examination by a physiotherapist to determine if you have any referred pain from your neck and shoulder or if your elbow pain is isolated. This will assist in a more direct approach to your problem and a speedier recovery.
Tennis elbow and it’s symptoms
Typically, this condition presents as pain at or just below the lateral epicondyle- that is, the pointy part on the outside of your elbow. Generally people experience pain with gripping, lifting or wringing activities which cause tension over the tendon (see above picture). Clinically, we as physiotherapists often find people suffering this condition have weak and/or tight forearm muscles and stiff elbow and wrist joints.
There is a wide variation in the severity of this condition and how long the symptoms may last for. As with any injury, it is best that we see you as soon as possible to start you on an injury management plan. On assessment, your physiotherapist will be able to give you a guide as to how long your injury may last.
6 Steps to treating tennis elbow pain
Initial management of this condition is through pain relieving techniques such as soft tissue massage, joint mobilisations, stretching tight nerves and muscles, dry needling, heat and/or cold therapy and taping. We also sell tennis elbow braces to our clients that are effective in relieving pain in some people. I’ll cover these methods in more detail;:
1. Soft Tissue Massage: A massage therapist can use a range of techniques to release soft tissue, break down tension and realign the fibres. These techniques include myofacial release and transverse friction techniques.
2. Joint mobilisation: this management may include massage around the problem area or gently mobilising the joints of your neck and elbow.
3. Stretching: As soon as your pain allows, start stretching the area. Extension exercises of the wrist will be the most important stretches you can do to improve your range of motion and to increase the amount of load on the tendon.
4. Dry Needling: Dry needling is a technique that is fast gaining appreciation within the physiotherapy world, with many practitioners throughout Australia now trained in the use of acupuncture needles to assist with their client’s pain and rehabilitation. The insertion of needles at varying lengths and points are thought to alter the way pain signals are transmitted by nerve pathways.
5. Hot/Cold therapy: Apply ice to the elbow regularly to reduce the pain and inflammation will be a good start, particularly at the early onset of pain.
6. Kinesio Taping: Kinesio taping may help decrease the pain and can reduce the likelihood of injury aggravation.
Another exercise option is the ‘The Tyler Twist”, where clients are asked to perform an exercise using a FlexBar®. The experiment consisted of a group of 22 subjects who suffered from tennis elbow. These subjects were then split into 2 groups. The first group were asked to perform the FlexBar® exercise as well as receive standard physiotherapy. The control group received physiotherapy alone. It was found after 7 weeks of therapy that the first group had significantly more improvement than the group receiving only standard physio; in particular, the eccentric exercise group improved their pain level 81% vs. 22% in the standard group.
Ongoing management and prevention of tennis elbow.
Of utmost importance in managing this condition is a progressive strengthening program. Tendons require gradual load in order to heal correctly, so it is very important to continue to strengthen your muscles even if your pain is gone. At this phase of your rehabilitation, it is also important to look at contributing factors such as workstation setup and your posture. If you have some referred pain, assessing your pillow may also be necessary to ensure that your whole body is always in optimal alignment.
Sometimes patients are recommended by their GP to consider a cortisone injection into the elbow. The most recent research regarding this shows that it actually makes you worse in the longer term. Cortisone assists in settling inflammation, which may help in the short term, but generally this condition is not an inflammatory condition.
Recovery from tennis elbow pain
Typically, tendon overload injuries such as this can take anywhere between 2 and 24 months to be back to normal. No, this doesn’t mean you will be in pain for that long or that you will necessarily need one on one treatment for that long. It means that the healing process of tendons is longer than any other tissue in the body so you may need to continue with an exercise regime in the longer term- even after you stop seeing your physiotherapist. This will ensure that your pain stays away.
Remember, tennis elbow is not the same as Golfers elbow which we’ll be covering in a later post. If you are experiencing elbow pain, even if you’re not sure if it’s tennis elbow, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible to reduce your recovery time.
This article originally appeared on sportandspinalphysio.com.au and was written by Craig Honeybrook
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