One body part where there are a number of common issues is the elbow joint. Terms like tennis elbow, and golfers elbow, get thrown around regularly when people have pain in their elbows. Other related conditions, like carpal tunnel syndrome, also involve the elbow joint and muscles of the forearm.
One of the problems with elbow injuries is that this area of your body is constantly in use. People with pain in their elbows commonly list simple activities like typing, driving, writing, shaking hands or turning doorknobs as movements that aggravate their condition. When nearly everything you do causes pain, it can be pretty hard to fully rest the injury.
Over the years I’ve had my own share of elbow injuries. These have included troubles at the outer, or lateral, side of the elbow involving my forearm extensor muscles as well as at the inner, or medial, side of the elbow involving my flexor muscles. I’ve had problems develop from repeated overuse like extended fly-fishing trips, and from acute injuries during sports. Sometimes the issues have resolved quickly, while other times they have lasted for extended periods.
If you’ve ever struggled with elbow pain, you know how challenging it can be to live your life and participate in your favorite activities without making the problem worse. However, what I’ve found with many people is that they will just put up with the pain and let it linger for months or years, because it’s not debilitating like an acute lower back or knee problem. Take it from me, it’s better to prevent elbow problems if possible, and if they do arise, get on top of them quickly so they don’t become chronic.
Always remember to perform a progressive warm-up when you exercise, and be sure to get medical approval before starting a new fitness program.
Knowledge – Most problems that arise in the elbow area are easier to diagnose than more complicated body parts, like the lower back. This is because there are less joint articulations and for the most part the muscles are more superficial. For this reason, it really makes sense to get a timely, accurate diagnosis of what is causing the problem so you can start doing the right things to correct it.
Of course there are some conditions that can be tricky to assess but a well-trained and experienced practitioner should be able to give you an accurate diagnosis without too much difficulty. If the joints of the shoulder, elbow and wrist are functioning effectively, you’re likely looking at muscle imbalance as a primary contributor, unless an acute traumatic injury occurred. As an example, if the flexor muscles in your forearm are too tight, the smaller extensor muscles can be working too hard to move your wrist and hand, which can cause strain and pain in the tendons. By knowing exactly which stretches and strengthening exercises to perform, you can be well on the way to eliminating your pain.
Treatment – Treating an elbow issue effectively often takes diligence, especially if it’s a problem that has lingered for a while. The first steps are to ensure the joints are functioning properly, then reduce any inflammation in the joints or tissues. For this, icing and ibuprofen may be in order. Icing small body parts like the lateral epicondyle of the elbow can most easily be done with ice massage. Fill a few small Styrofoam cups with water and freeze them. When you need to ice, just pull out a cup, peel back a small amount of Styrofoam to expose the ice, and gently massage the painful area.
Once you’ve reduced the inflammation, gentle exercises to balance the muscles are probably in order. Because of the tendency to aggravate elbow problems, go gently at first until you build up tolerance. For rehabilitation add specific movements like resisted finger extension to more global movements like wrist rotation, flexion and extension.
Prevention – Avoiding elbow problems is challenging in a day and age where computer and smart phone usage is so prevalent. These products put high demands on certain muscles of the forearms and can cause repetitive stress injuries. Sport-specific injuries are also a potential problem when certain movements are performed over and over.
Your best bet is to maintain optimal strength, flexibility and balance in your body, by focusing on good posture and overall fitness. On top of this, pay attention to the health of the muscles in your forearms by doing regular preventive stretching exercises, like the forearm extensor stretch shown here. Extend your right arm in front of you and place your left thumb under your right wrist. Use your left hand to flex your wrist toward the floor. If you don’t feel a stretch in your forearm, curl your fingers up into your palm.
–Rob Williams is a kinesiologist, elite personal trainer and posture specialist. He has been practicing for 16 years and currently operates an exclusive private training studio Mixx Fitness Studio, with a team of 10 trainers, as well as a multi-disciplinary posture facility, Performance Posture Clinic. Rob is an accomplished writer and speaker in the fields of fitness, posture and nutrition, and can be contacted at Williams Health Group.