I want you to understand what Tennis Elbow actually affects, what you need to understand about the condition and then work out for yourself what you can do about it (that’s the DIY bit in DiyInjuryRehab.com).
You’ve probably read it all before about Tennis Elbow being an overuse injury that is caused by repetitive gripping tasks such as using a screwdriver or using power tools, that it affects between 1 and 4% of the population and that 30-40% of tennis players actually do get it!!
Well it’s all true! But I would like to take a slightly different approach. I am going to educate you to fix yourself!
Tennis Elbow can be quite persistent and can be troublesome for anything up to two years. It can become severe and in some cases requires surgery to resolve it! In 75% of cases it affects the elbow on the dominant hand side and this has serious implications for work and sport. It is important to get to grips with Tennis Elbow in the early stages and prevent it from becoming severe and chronic.
These posts on Tennis Elbow will help you understand what the condition involves and what you can do about it now to resolve it.
This post will explain:-
- anatomy of the elbow
- how the elbow moves
- what is tennis elbow?
- what causes tennis elbow?
There are three bones that make up your elbow joint.
First there’s the upper arm bone called the humerus which runs from your shoulder to your elbow.
Joining with the humerus at the elbow joint are the two forearm bones called the radius and the ulna.
If you stand with your arms by your sides and your palms facing forwards the ulna is the bone on the ‘inside’ nearest to your body.
It forms a ‘hinge’ joint with the humerus.
The radius lies on the outside of your forearm and has a button-like end which takes part in the elbow hinge.
It is also involved with palm up and palm down rotation of the forearm. (Pronation and Supination)
The radius and ulna are joined to each other just below the elbow and also just above the wrist joint.
These joints allow the radius to rotate around the ulna which stays stationary.
To demonstrate this bend your elbow to a right angle with your palm facing up – in this position the radius lies on the outside of the ulna at the elbow and the wrist.
Now if you turn your palm to face downwards the radius crosses over the ulna and now it is on the inside at the wrist (but still the outside at the elbow).
Click on the video for a demonstration.
If you feel the outside of your elbow you will find a distinctly sharp bony prominence which sticks out – this is called the lateral epicondyle. It is the lower part of your humerus bone. If you keep your finger on this bony lump and waggle fingers your will feel the muscles attached to this bump moving under your finger.
As you can see from the video clip above the elbow movements are quite simple.
Flexion is bending of the elbow
Extension is straightening of the elbow
Pronation is when the palm faces down
Supination when the palm of the hand faces up
However none of the muscles that are used to produce these elbow movements are directly involved in Tennis Elbow.
What Is Tennis Elbow?
It is thought that Acute Tennis Elbow consists of microscopic tears in the attachment of the muscle to the bone.
This tearing results in the stimulation of the repair process which increases collagen production and blood vessel growth.
This increase in blood vessels may explain the pain that is felt as well as a local increase in temperature.
However is is more commonly thought that even acute tendinitis is due to a sudden increase in stress which causes further problems for an already degenerated area of tendon.
The thinking is that the pain is produced by the new blood vessels and nerves at the repair site rather than from a local inflammatory response.
A key feature of chronic inflammation and degenerative changes is collagen production.
If too much collagen is formed, this can lead to a condition known as fibrosis.
As stated above collagen is necessary to replace the tissue lost during long term inflammation or degeneration, however the overproduction of collagen over time can lead to excessive scarring and functional shortening of the muscle interfering with it’s function.
In addition when your elbow is painful for a period of time the your brain adapts and you start to use the muscles in the arm differently and this can lead to problems elsewhere in the arm and neck.
These problems may well have to be corrected before you can use your elbow efficiently again and get rid of your pain – so it is always advisable to be assessed by a good physiotherapist (or other specialist) if you have chronic elbow pain.
Tennis Elbow Causes?
So you may be wondering why most tennis elbow pain seems to associated with gripping – you know that using a screwdriver, stripping wallpaper or practising a tennis backhand aggravates your pain. Well the reason takes a bit of explaining.
The muscles that attach to the lateral epicondyle all are attached to the bones of the hand and they produce movements at the wrist and hand.
Movements at wrist:
extension, flexion, radial deviation, ulnar deviation.
The muscles associated with Tennis Elbow all produce extension of the wrist, and at least one from the group helps produce radial deviation, and one ulnar deviation.
To grip strongly you need to extend your wrist – this extension gives the muscles on the front of your forearm what is known as a mechanical advantage when producing gripping power.
Try gripping with your wrist fully flexed then the try again with your wrist extended.
It is much easier to generate power with your wrist extended isn’t it!
So although you don’t use the muscles on the back of your forearm to directly produce the grip strength in your hand you use them to help the muscles on the front of your forearm generate the power by positioning the wrist.
I mentioned earlier that the muscles in the body that cross more than one joint are the ones most susceptible to injury. The simplest explanation for this is opposing movements can be simultaneously taking place at the two joints the muscle crosses.
This places complex movement patterns on the muscle which tries to do two things at the same time which makes it more prone to injury.
In the case of the Tennis Elbow muscles they are positioning the wrist and hand to allow you to get a strong grip- imagine using a screwdriver.
However at the same time you are frequently moving your elbow joint – remember these muscles are attached on the upper side of the elbow.
Trying to maintain the wrist position while moving at the elbow and pronating and supinating the forearm constantly changes the stress on these muscles.
Can you now start to understand why they get overused, are subject to microtrauma and degeneration, and get painful?
In addition to these stresses, raquet sports add further loads to these muscles.
Just imagine the extra load being applied by the impact of the ball on the raquet head in this picture!
The wrist extensors attached to the lateral epicondyle are having to stop the wrist from ‘breaking’ and keeping it firm to control the ball’s flight.
If you remember any of your school physics then you will recall that
EFFORT = LOAD X DISTANCE.
Now think about the speed of the ball (loosely the Load = mass x acceleration) and look how far the ball is away from the wrist and start to calculate the increase in the ‘breaking’ force at the wrist!!
Be careful not to hit wet tennis balls – they weigh more and increase the load significantly!
Also your racquet needs to be strung appropriately for you. Increased tension in the strings increases the ‘forces’ generated in the racquet. These forces need to be controlled by the wrist and forearm.
It is essential that the grip of your racquet is appropriate to the size of your hand.
If you have any problems I would strongly advise seeking the advice of a professional tennis coach.
That is why you get Tennis Elbow with tennis backhands and also gripping activities, AND why avoiding gripping tightly will help your elbow to get better quicker!!
To summarise, you now should have an understanding of
- the anatomy of the elbow region
- movements at the elbow and forearm joints
- what Tennis Elbow is
- why gripping and raquet sports cause Tennis Elbow
- Forearm Pain – Essential anatomy of forearm muscles.
- Tennis Elbow Symptoms – Have I Got Tennis Elbow?
- Elbow Tendinitis / Tendonitis Injuries – How Do You Get Arm Pain?
- Pull Ups with Tennis Elbow
- Tennis Elbow Injury – What Is Tennis Elbow?
- Tennis Elbow Lateral Epicondylitis Exercises – How to Stretch