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How To Treat Elbow Tendonitis

Aug 30, 2021

Tendonitis of the elbow, also called lateral epicondylitis, is an inflammation of the connective tissue that connects the muscles in the forearm to the elbow. The tendons attach to the outside edge of the upper arm bone (i.e., the humerus), where it meets the elbow. Learning how to treat elbow tendonitis is a good thing to know before tendonitis occurs.

Tendonitis is caused by overuse of the forearm muscles, but playing a lot of tennis with its repetitive forearm motion is only one way of irritating these tendons. Plumbers, carpenters, and painters commonly develop tennis elbow as they engage in repetitive motions, too. Knowing how to treat elbow tendonitis is useful for different kinds of people who develop the same problem.

Other athletes also develop elbow tendonitis — such as golfers and baseball players. The typical age for developing tendonitis is 30 to 50 years, but this varies widely. Every year, 1% to 3% of the population gets elbow tendonitis. Knowing how to treat elbow tendonitis is important for everyone as anyone can develop this painful condition.

Elbow Tendonitis Symptoms

The main symptom of elbow tendonitis is pain (sometimes a burning pain) and tenderness on the outside of the elbow. Stiffness and pain in the elbow in the morning or at night are also common, and is worse when trying to use the hand or arm. 
Because the muscles, tendons, and nerves travel through the arm, the pain, while usually worse over the elbow, can travel to the upper arm, lower arm, and to the wrist and hand. Some people who do not know recognize elbow tendonitis, find they have problems shaking hands, turning doorknobs, and holding objects. They may think the problem is in the hand or wrist when it is elbow tendonitis.

How to Treat Elbow Tendonitis at Home

If people learn how to treat lateral epicondylitis, they can often successfully treat their symptoms at home. The initial steps should be done when pain and tenderness develop over the outer elbow area:

1. Rest the arm to decrease further injury.
2. Apply ice wrapped in a towel or very cold water in a paper cup to the injured area for 20 minutes. Do this 3 or 4 times a day for the first few days to minimize inflammation and further injury.
3. Pain and inflammation can often be treated with medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen.

Doing these things when an injury that seems like elbow tendonitis becomes apparent can improve the speed and likelihood of a full recovery. Treating elbow tendonitis at home can save time recovering.
Other options for those wanting to know how to treat elbow tendonitis at home include a tennis elbow brace. Applying a tight compression brace over the muscles and tendons just below the elbow helps to keep these structures from irritating the tendonitis by pushing the forces when using the arm down the arm and away from the center of irritation. A brace also helps to let the muscles and tendons rest.

There are a variety of braces and compression bands for people seeking treatment for elbow tendonitis. Finding the correct style and fit is somewhat a matter of personal choice, but an orthopedic specialist can also be of tremendous assistance in choosing the best device.

Naturally, knowing if an elbow or arm injury is, in fact, tendonitis is important for treatment. 

When in doubt, an orthopedic doctor can do a physical examination, take a good history of a patient’s activities, and order x-rays.

If a question remains about the diagnosis, a CT scan, MRI, or nerve conduction study can be performed.

Elbow Tendonitis Exercises

Another element for those who want to know how to treat elbow tendonitis is exercise or physical therapy. Some of the exercises for elbow tendonitis are:

  • Wrist Extension Stretch - With the elbows loose, straighten the arm and bend the wrist back as if signaling “stop.” It is okay to use the opposite hand to help straighten the hand gently. Hold the position for about 15 seconds and repeat five times.
  • Wrist Flexion Stretch - Doing the same as the wrist extension, except the wrist is bent down (opposite of “stop”). Use the opposite hand to help. Hold the position for 15 seconds and repeat five times.
  • Wrist Extension Strengthening - This exercise is performed in stages, and after a few days of doing it with no pain, add a light weight such as one pound.
  • Wrist Flexion Strengthening - This exercise is also performed in stages with a light weight added only after a few days with no pain.
  • Stress Ball Squeeze - Squeeze the ball using all of the fingers as hard as possible without causing any pain. Do this daily with ten repetitions. A rolled-up sock or towel can also be used.
  • Finger Stretch - Place a rubber band over the four fingers on the hand about midway down the finger. Spread your fingers against the resistance of the rubber band. Repeat ten times each day.
  • Wrist Turn - Bend the elbow at a right angle with the palm facing up. Turn the hand over slowly until the palm is facing down. Hold this position for 5 seconds and try to repeat ten repetitions.
  • Towel Twist - Holding a loosely rolled towel lengthwise, twist the towel by moving the hands in opposite directions. Do ten repetitions in one direction and ten in the opposite direction.

While these are examples of some of the many exercises that can be done at home if one knows how to treat elbow tendonitis, they should be done carefully and gradually, especially at first. Significant pain is a sign that the exercises are either not good for the injury or are being done with too much force. Gradually increasing the strength used with each exercise is the key.

When To See a Doctor About Elbow Tendonitis

While it is very valuable to know how to treat elbow tendonitis as most cases can successfully be treated at home, improper treatment or no treatment usually results in tendonitis lasting six months to 2 years before resolving. During this time, pain and disability occur daily. If a patient employs the various treatment strategies for 6 to 12 months without significant improvement, surgery may be recommended.
While rarely necessary, when surgery is needed, it is usually done arthroscopically or with an open incision made over the outer elbow. The abnormal and inflamed tissue is removed, and after a brief recovery period, most surgical patients do extremely well. Patients still need to understand how to treat elbow tendonitis because part of the healing process will involve the same exercises as patients who have not had surgery. Ultimately, only about 10% or fewer patients will require some sort of surgical treatment.

It is necessary to see an orthopedic specialist if you know how to treat elbow tendonitis and have been treating it with no improvement after a few weeks or months. While it is often gradual, some improvement should be obvious within the first few weeks. Also, when you have questions about diagnosis, treatment options, or exercises, finding the best orthopedic specialists is easy.

Just contact one of the specialists at The Orthopedic Institute of New Jersey. They have locations throughout New Jersey. For a consultation about elbow tendonitis, contact an OINJ doctor near you.

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