There are many different activities that can lead to this condition but particularly those that involve repetitive motions of the wrist and arm. Although commonly referred to as tennis elbow, it is not just tennis players who can get this injury. Repetitive activities like painting, driving screws, even cutting up cooking ingredients like meat can be the culprit. The primary cause, regardless of the specific activity, is repeated contraction of the forearm muscles that you use to straighten and raise your hand and wrist, notably the extensor carpi radialis brevis muscle. Repeated motions and stress to the tissue may cause a series of tiny tears in the tendons that attach the forearm muscles to the bony prominence at the outside of your elbow. There are a high number of pain receptors in this region making it quite tender to the touch, you will know this if you have ever hit your funny bone!
Some risk factors for developing tennis elbow include:
- Age: higher incidence in those age 30-50
- Occupation: those who have jobs that involve repetitive wrist/arm motions, such as plumbers, painters, carpenters, and cooks
- Specific sports, such as racket sports, specifically if you have poor stroke technique
If caught early on, rest and ice can help to manage the symptoms of this condition. But, if it doesn't improve within a few days, it's best to see your doctor or a healthcare provider like a physiotherapist. If left untreated, lateral epicondylitis can lead to chronic and potentially debilitating pain.
What can be done to prevent this type of injury? The best way to prevent it is to stretch and strengthen your arm muscles so they are flexible and strong enough for your activities. It also helps to use proper technique and movement during activities and use equipment appropriate to your abilities. Try to avoid prolonged repetitive movements, for example try to alternate hands during a repetitive activity like painting. Lastly, maintaining good overall health and keeping the muscles of your arms, shoulders, and upper back strong will also help take stress off the elbow. See Exercises of the Month below for a stretch and a strengthening exercise.
by Stephanie Brown, PT