If you’re a tennis buff, summer is probably your favorite season. This is the time of year when you hit the court for a little fun, sun, and exercise—and it’s also peak season for tennis elbow. If you’ve never experienced this painful condition, consider yourself lucky. And if you have, you know that the best way to deal with it is to try to avoid it in the first place. A few simple tips can save you a lot of pain and frustration, both on the court and in daily life.
Francis Mendoza, M.D., an NYC-based orthopaedic surgeon specializing in the treatment of sports-related elbow and shoulder injuries, provides an overview of what the condition is, what causes it and some tips to prevent tennis elbow on the court this summer.
What is tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is a painful elbow condition in which your forearm muscles and tendons become inflamed. It affects the area of your lateral epicondyle, where the tendons attach to the outside bony part of your elbow. It’s generally caused by overuse, and although it can affect anyone who stresses their wrists too often, it’s an extremely common tennis injury—hence the name “tennis elbow”. Common symptoms include:
- Arm or elbow pain when you grip or twist things
- Pain that radiates from the outside of your elbow down your forearm and into your wrist
- Weak grip
- Weakness in your forearm
What causes tennis elbow?
Although it can be caused by a single traumatic incident, such as a direct blow to the outside of your elbow or falling with your arm outstretched, tennis elbow is primarily an overuse injury. Repetitive movements that involve twisting your elbow put a strain on the tendons, and over time this repetitive strain causes tiny tears. This weakens the tendons and leads to pain and inflammation. Tennis elbow can also be caused by poor body mechanics—how you hold your racquet, or using equipment that’s too heavy or the wrong size for your hand to grip correctly.
Tips to Prevent Tennis Elbow
Don’t let tennis elbow keep you off the courts this summer. A few simple precautions can save your elbows and your game.
- Stretch before and after exercise
Stretching before playing—or other exercise—is important, but stretching afterward is equally important and is often overlooked. Stretching beforehand warms your muscles and tendons up and makes them more flexible, while stretching afterward relieves the tension built up during exercise. When you don’t stretch afterward, you may have chronic low-level tension going on all the time, putting minor, but unnecessary stress on your muscles and tendons.
- Switch strokes during practice to avoid overuse and muscle imbalances
Repetitive strain/overuse injuries result from doing the same thing over and over. Eliminating some of the repetition lowers the risk of injury from repetitive strain. In addition, when you focus too much on one motion, you may be building up one set of muscles only to leave their counterparts weak, which can result in injury.
- Use proper equipment and technique
The correct size and weight of your racquet is important. A racquet that’s too heavy or too light, or which you can’t grip properly, can put undue stress on both your elbows and shoulders. Improper technique can also leave you open to injury, so if you’re new to tennis, make sure you receive proper instruction on body mechanics and technique.
- Work on strengthening the muscles around the elbow and wrist
Strong muscles help stabilize the joint, and help reduce stress and strain.
- Keep your arms straight when lifting heavy objects in daily activities
Bending your arms when lifting puts unnecessary stress on your elbows and can result in injury.
If you’re at high risk for tennis elbow—for instance, if you have a history of tendon injuries, or you have a job involving lots of repetitive motion—you may benefit from wearing a counterforce brace when you play. A counterforce brace is a strap worn on your forearm, just below your elbow, which distributes stress more evenly through your arm and eases pressure on the tendons.
Don’t let tennis elbow stop you from enjoying your game. If you are experiencing any of the telltale signs of lateral epicondylitis, contact our orthopaedic office for a consultation and get ready to hit the court this summer.