Overuse or repeated pressure on the elbow joint can cause small tears to form in the soft tissue, particularly where the tendon anchors to bone. If a number of these tears occur over a period of time, they can cause pain and reduced movement of the elbow joint. Depending on the location and severity of the injury, full recovery can take months.
The most common type of elbow pain is known as ‘tennis elbow’. ‘Golfer’s elbow’ is a less common but similar overuse injury. Despite their names, these injuries can occur as a result of a range of physical activities – racquet sports, rowing, canoeing, weightlifting, hockey, wrestling, swimming – as well as repetitive work tasks undertaken in a variety of occupations.
The elbow joint
If you bend your arm, you can feel three bumps at your elbow joint. Injury to the tendons that anchor muscles to the two bumps on either side of the elbow are a common cause of elbow pain:
- Lateral epicondyle (‘tennis elbow’) – the bump on the outer side of the elbow. The muscles on the back of your forearm, responsible for curling your wrist backwards, are anchored to this bony point. Pain in this bump is called lateral epicondylitis. This area is particularly susceptible to tennis elbow because it has a poor blood supply.
- Medial epicondyle (‘golfer’s elbow’) – the bump on the inner side of the elbow. The muscles on the front of your forearm, responsible for curling your wrist up, are anchored to this bony point. Pain in this bump is called medial epicondylitis.
Some of the symptoms of elbow pain include:
- Pain in the elbow joint, especially when straightening the arm
- Dull ache when at rest
- Pain when making a fist (medial epicondylitis)
- Pain when opening the fingers (lateral epicondylitis)
- Soreness around the affected elbow bump
- Weak grip
- Difficulties and pain when trying to grasp objects, especially with the arm stretched out.
A range of causes
Some of the many conditions and events that may contribute to elbow injuries include:
- Lack of strength or flexibility in the forearm muscles
- Lack of strength in the shoulder muscles
- Instability of the elbow joint
- Poor technique during sporting activities (especially tennis and golf) that puts too much strain on the elbow joint
- Inappropriate sporting equipment, such as using a heavy tennis racquet or having the wrong sized grip on a tennis racquet or golf club
- Repetitive movements of the hands and arms, such as working on an assembly line
- Continuously making the muscles and joint take heavy loads
- Other factors such as neck symptoms or nerve irritation.
Suggestions for first aid to elbow injuries include:
- Stop whatever you are doing.
- Rest your elbow for a few days.
- Use icepacks every two hours, applied for 15 minutes.
- Massage and stretch the muscles after 48 hours to relieve stress and tension.
- See your doctor or physiotherapist for diagnosis and further treatment, if necessary
Ways to reduce the risk of elbow injury include:
- Always warm up and cool down thoroughly when playing sport.
- Make sure you use good technique and proper equipment when playing your chosen sports.
- Do strengthening exercises with hand weights – your physiotherapist can prescribe the correct exercises for you.
- Regularly stretch relevant muscles before beginning any potentially stressful activity. Your physiotherapist can prescribe the correct exercises for you.
- Avoid or modify work tasks that put excessive pressure on muscles of the forearm or that include the use of fingers, wrists and forearms in repetitive work involving forceful movement, awkward postures and lack of rest.