So your elbow hurts. Maybe its tennis elbow. Maybe its golfer’s elbow. But you don’t golf or play tennis? Names like this from conditions are pretty silly and give little information as to what is actually happening, and, more importantly, WHY.
Tennis elbow, lateral epicondylitis, or lateral epicondylosis are often used interchangeably. Basically they all refer to pain on your elbow, most commonly on the sharp little piece of bone that you can feel on the outside part. That part is called the lateral epicondyle, itis refers to inflammation, osis is more of chronic micro-trauma causing degeneration and weakness. Lateral epicondylosis is the most accurate term for this, but all that gets you, at best, is an understanding of what is going on. Your elbow still probably hurts.
Understanding why the tissue is inflamed or degenerating is essential to treating the condition and getting long term results. The tissue is getting more stress than it can deal with and begins to break down. Things targeted at pain relief may provide just that, but they will likely not reduce stress on the tissue. For long term solutions there are 2 things that will improve this stress overload:
- Decrease the amount of stress on the tissue
- Increase the tissues capacity to deal with stress
This is a very simple concept, but it is not always easy to accomplish. Lets tackle some common and not so common ways to address the first option, reducing stress:
An obvious choice would be to rest the tissue, which will reduce loading. This is a reasonable thing to try because it might be free (if you don’t have to stop doing something gainful to do so) and can be easy to try. It should reduce the stress and allow the tissue time to heal. For example, if you actually did get tennis elbow playing tennis, you could stop. Although rest can be important and might be necessary in some cases, it is not a good stand alone option if you want to return to the offending activity. Most of the time you probably do want to return to your activity. If the cause of the problem is not addressed, the overuse can return when you go back to doing things again. Not ideal.
Another way to reduce stress is to make the tissue and surround area work better. Increasing efficiency of your arm/elbow will let it to do the same thing, but with less stress on the injured area. This can provide both short and long term help because it will continue to be beneficial after full return to your desired activity, unlike rest alone. This is great for people who are committed to following home care recommendations and who want to get back as fast as possible, or even heal without stopping.
Improving mechanics will reduce the stress on the tissue and increase the tissues ability to deal with that stress. This is great for both healing, and for maximizing performance. If you can play tennis or lift or work even 10% more efficiently, it can allow you to heal or push it that extra step.
So how do you improve the biomechanics of your arm to reduce this stress and improve performance? The simplest way is to have all the joints and muscles moving like they should and have them as strong as they need to be. A restricted muscle or joint will not work properly no matter how strong it is, and a perfectly moving joint without proper strength and stability (which might just be impossible) will also not be healthy. Long term these small dysfunctions in proper body function can lead to overuse injuries or even silently rob you of performance.
This again is simple, but not always easy. Proper neck, shoulder, elbow, and wrist function are necessary and may be limited by old injuries and the loads of training and/or work, Overuse injuries are often a long time coming, which is why it is important to get to the root of the issue and have a plan that gets you long term results in terms of both pain relief and proper health and function.