How to Treat Tennis Elbow
Adam provides an overview of his own experience of tennis elbow and who are potential suffers from the condition.
Back in high school, I wanted to accomplish one of two goals - to play (American) football at the collegiate level or become a professional bodybuilder. These goals consumed my life and dictated everything I did. In short, I was ready and willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish them.
But I did not. Not because I did not try hard enough, but because I developed a physical condition known as lateral epicondylitis (otherwise known as tennis elbow). As you can probably imagine, I sought help from every doctor I could find. They performed MRI scans (which returned no indications of the condition) and referred me to physical therapists who only made the condition worse.
Perhaps I was not going to the correct specialists, but I received no help from the medical field. I did, however, cure myself of the condition years later by doing a ton of research and reaching out to coaches and trainers who had experience with it. That brings me to an important point. Like sports coaches, you can help people overcome physical ailments when medical doctors cannot. Had I reached out earlier, I may have realized my dreams.
Before getting into what I did, I want to discuss the basics of tennis elbow, who it typically affects, and my experience with it.
Tennis (or golfers) elbow is caused by inflammation of the tendons in the elbow. It is a form of tendinitis that results from the repetitive motion of the arm, or from pulling heavy loads. [Mayo Clinic - Tennis Elbow]. As the name suggests, tennis players and golfers are especially susceptible to it. But that is not those whose jobs involve pulling heavy loads (construction works, plumbers, etc.) or performing repetitive elbow flexion (painters, violinists, etc.) are also susceptible. It affects up to 3% of the general population, most of whom are between the ages of 30 and 50. [WebMD - Tennis Elbow]
From my experience, the pain associated with tennis elbow can at times be intolerable, making the slightest applications of elbow flexion, such as opening a door, very difficult. As mentioned before, tennis elbow is caused (and aggravated) by heavy pulling movements and repetitive motion of the arm. As such, I was limited to the amount of weight I could pull, which made back and bicep muscle development difficult and ultimately resulted in a disproportionate physique.
This can be a significant setback for bodybuilders as symmetry is one of the most critical elements in the judging criteria. The issue can be slightly mitigated by performing high repetitions with low weights on “back” days, but rapid muscle development will be difficult without progressively increasing tension on the muscle.
Athletes that perform throwing motions (such as pitchers and quarterbacks in American baseball and football, respectively) will see a more significant setback as this is the most extreme example of elbow flexion. As a quarterback, this meant throwing in the towel.
The protocol I used to heal my tennis elbow can be divided into three parts: pre-workout stretches, mid-workout strengthening, and post-workout soft tissue mobilization.
Pre-workout treatment for tennis elbow
Before each workout warm up the wrist extensor muscle. Extend your arm straight in front of you, bend your wrist back and hold for 2-3 seconds, bend your wrist forward and hold for 2-3 seconds, and repeat for 15 reps.
If extending your arm out all the way results in pain, lay it flat on a surface and perform the exercises. Now it is time to stretch the extensor muscles. Do the same as before but this time pull your fingers back with your other arm. Hold for around 30 seconds and repeat thrice.
Mid-workout treatment for tennis elbow
Now it is time to strengthen the muscles in the wrist. Two great exercises for this are the barbell and reverse barbell wrist curls. In my experience, performing these exercises at the start of a workout (and especially on “back” and “arms” days) is one of the best ways to prevent pain and flair up during the workout.
Perform both exercises using weights that you can comfortably complete 25-40 repetitions with. Do four sets each, gradually increasing the weight for each set. Another excellent tool to utilize during your workout is wrist straps, which improve your grip by transferring tension from your tendons to your wrist.
Post-workout soft tissue mobilization (Water Bottle Method)
This is the most important part, which I like to call the Water Bottle Method. It involves a manual physical therapy technique - known as soft tissue mobilization - that helps to break up adhesion and scar tissue. This is normally done using your hands, but I discovered a little trick to make the technique a lot more effective.
Start by freezing a plastic water bottle and peel off the plastic once it is solid. Wrap a cloth around one end and use the other to massage the tendons in your elbow (more specifically, the extensor carpi radialis brevis) in a back and forth motion parallel and perpendicular to the tendon. Do this for 2-3 minutes on each arm then apply a topical analgesic heat rub.
The protocol is most effective when all three parts are completed consistently for a few months. In my case, the pain had vanished within a month but returned shortly after stopping the method. I then returned to it, but this time I continued to follow it well after the pain was gone. Doing so for five months resulted in complete healing of the condition. It is now been about six years since I last completed the protocol and have not had a single flare-up.
I hope this article will help you spot and treat tennis elbow when dealing with clients.
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