In this article:
- What is tennis elbow?
- The symptoms of tennis elbow
- Treatments and relief
- When to get surgery?
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is a form of tendinitis that occurs in the tendons in the elbow and forearm muscles. Despite what its name may lead you to believe, less than 5% of all cases of tennis elbow occur in people who play tennis! You can also get "golfer's elbow", "painter's elbow" or a variety of other "elbows" from overuse of the muscle or frequent repetitive movements such as by playing racquet sports, volleyball, weight lifting, or even from typing and labor-intensive jobs such as carpentry. You can also develop tennis elbow from an injury or blow to the lateral epicondyle, the outside of the elbow bone where your muscle attaches to.
When I got tennis elbow, or more accurately volleyball-server elbow, I was told there wasn't much I could do aside from resting, icing, and stretching my elbow before and after practice. Despite this, I wasn't going to let my elbow pain get in the way of my game! That's when I started to explore my options and came across the complete "treatment" package.
The symptoms of tennis elbow can range from mild irritation to lasting soreness that occurs during and after exercise. You may feel pain or tenderness, or experience swelling on the outside of your elbow. This pain can also extend to your lower arm. You might experience flare-ups of pain when using your hand and arm to lift and grip objects or do the motion that injured your arm in the first place.
For me, I would feel pain immediately after serving the volleyball and would experience pain while I used that hand to take notes or type. It felt like I had to stretch or massage the area. That did nothing to arrest the pain. It persisted no matter what I did and made everything a chore, from opening the door to serving in my volleyball games. Just like most sports injuries, this put me off my game and hurt my performance on and off the court. Thus began my investigation into how to get relief from the pain and heal the tendon so I could get back to acing!
There are many ways to go about treating tennis elbow, most of which depend on the severity of the injury. To properly diagnose tennis elbow, your doctor might have you go through a simple exam in which you flex your arm, wrist, and elbow to assess where the pain is stemming from. For more severe ligament damage, a musculoskeletal ultrasound, X-ray, or MRI might be ordered to get a better look at the affected area. In many cases tennis elbow can heal on its own, but not at the speed or in the manner you'd prefer. In order for it to fully heal, you have to let it rest and try the following nonsurgical treatment options:
Steroid injections used to be another common form of pain management for tennis elbow, but in the long run, they may not be effective and can also pose health risks.
Sometimes, the above treatments just won't cut it. For severe injuries that result in persistent pain or lack of mobility for 3 or more months, consider going to a healthcare professional in the field of orthopedic sports medicine who is well versed in tendinopathy and bursitis. If elbow surgery is recommended, orthopedic surgeons will remove the damaged parts of the tendon and repair the remaining tendon. Healing is typically fast and foolproof. Allow time for adequate rest to assist in the healing.
The road to recovery is not the same for everyone. If I knew what I know now, I probably could have gotten back into the game much faster. The sad truth is that it took an off-year for my volleyball elbow to disappear completely. Whether you're already starting to feel the pain or if you're an athlete or artist that wants to boost your total body health, you can prevent tennis elbow by taking it easy, eating healthy, supplementing where you can, and remembering to take breaks whenever the pain arises.
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