Tennis, a popular year-round game, is currently in season and is being played on high school and college courts around the country. But increased play brings increased risk for injury. Perhaps the most common tennis injury this time of year is aptly named "tennis elbow"—medically termed lateral epicondylitis.
The condition is usually caused by the constant pronation (internal rotation that occurs during tennis serves and returns) and supination (external rotation that occurs during backhand returns) of the forearm. This causes chronic inflammation on the outer side of the elbow, with pain that may radiate down the forearm and wrist.
An off-season weight training program and an in-season maintenance program can go a long way in preventing tennis elbow, but your season is already in full swing. So, if this injury is affecting you, use the following tips to alleviate tennis elbow pain.
At the first sign of pain or tenderness around the outside of the elbow, immediately apply ice to the area. Keep the elbow elevated above your heart and ice it for 10 to 15 minutes, on and off about five times during the first 48 hours, to reduce inflammation and swelling.
During the first 48 hours, rest the elbow. Do not stress it further by working through the pain. This could worsen the inflammation and delay healing. However, you don't have to rest the other parts of your body. Continue staying in tennis shape by jogging and strength training your lower body. You can even strengthen the uninjured arm muscles by squeezing a tennis ball several times or performing Dumbbell Wrist Curls and Extensions. Active rest during injury rehabilitation may accelerate healing, since those pain-erasing, feel-good endorphins are released through exercise.
Apply Moist Heat
After treating the injury with ice during the first 48 hours, switch to moist heat applications. Mix a half cup of Epsom salts in a large bowl of warm water. Dip a towel in the mixture and apply it around your elbow for about 10 minutes. Repeat twice more later in the day. The moist heat from the Epsom salt treatments not only reduces inflammation, it brings blood to the area to promote healing.
Don't overlook nutrition's role in healing. Dehydration and unhealthy eating habits can delay the healing process. Your best bet is to consume anti-inflammatory foods, which naturally reduce inflammation and swelling. Choose foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood, nuts or dark chocolate. Also, stay hydrated to ensure your muscles can recover well.
Stretching and Massage
After inflammation and tenderness subside, gently stretch the forearm muscles around the elbow. Hold your arm down at your side and externally rotate it, turning your thumb away from your body. Hold for 10 seconds. Then internally rotate your arm, turning your thumb toward your body, and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat three or four times. Afterward, gently massage the area around the outside of the elbow for 30 seconds to stimulate blood flow.
Try squeezing a tennis ball—but only if there's no pain. Perform three sets of five squeezes. Then make a fist and do Wrist Curls and Extensions with no weight for three sets of five reps each. If you have no pain, try performing the exercises with a light object, such as a rolled-up magazine; then progress to using slightly heavier resistance, like a three-pound dumbbell.
Test Your Elbow
Wear a tennis elbow brace and practice strokes without a ball. If you have lingering pain, continue applying heat, stretching and strengthening. After two or three more days, retest the elbow. If you don't experience pain, you are ready to get back on the court.
Jim Carpentier is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, a New Jersey-licensed massage therapist and a health/fitness writer. He currently serves as associate health and wellness director at the Greater Morristown YMCA in Cedar Knolls, N.J.