When lifting a coffee pot is painful, hoisting iron in the weight room is pretty much off limits. This was my reality for months after I was diagnosed with lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) in my right arm. All in all, it took a year to feel 100% with that arm again.
Tennis elbow is pain on the outside of the elbow that is worsened by cocking back the wrist, grasping or lifting objects, or simply extending and flexing the arm. This is an injury that can affect anyone, not just tennis players.
Elbow injuries can brew for years. We compensate by avoiding movments that cause it pain while still feeling twinges. One day it might just “pop,” however, and boom – you’re out of commission. Or the pain simply gets worse.
There’s the mental game and there’s the physical game to elbow injuries, and you’ve got to play both in order to win.
Hits and Misses
I had worked hard all winter to build my shoulders. I was very happy with my results and I love training, so it was disheartening when my elbow was injured.
It took weeks for me to actually acknowledge that I needed to substantially reduce my training to heal. I tried reducing the weight on my right side but the pain continued. My physical therapist finally suggested I lay off. But I’m glad she waited to suggest this this because I would have balked early on… Denial is a nice way of trying to hold on to something.
I did finally stop training the right side for about four weeks and it helped a bit. But when my elbow continued to flare up, my physical therapist and I figured out that it was actually using the computer mouse that was causing the pain. Since leaving my desk job last fall I was using my home computer more. So I bought a track ball mouse and started taping my wrist or wearing a wrist brace. With daily stretching, ice as needed, and reduced computer use, progress was rapid. (But maybe it had just been enough time to heal, too.)
I won’t deny I have a healthy dose of vanity, so I began training unilaterally. I figured that as long as one side looked ripped, I could live with being a bit unsymmetrical. Like I said, there’s a mental game to be played here.
While I got a lot of satisfaction from unilateral training, it became clear that I was also losing ground on my “good” side. Unilateral training is valuable, but you do sacrifice a certain amount of strength. You simply can’t go as heavy using one side – you must rely more your core as your body stabilizes itself to the center. So instead of lifting 55 pounds for shoulder presses, I had to go with 25 pounds on the left, then down to 22.5. It’s also not as easy getting a heavy dumbbell overhead with only one arm. Nonetheless, I’m glad I maintained what I could, even though my left side is visibly bigger than my right. That will change once the other side catches up.
Clearly, injuries don’t just happen while you’re working out and can be combination of many things, such as muscle imbalances, old injuries, repetitive movements, and bad posture. Our bodies are a kinetic chain, so one weak link affects the others.
This checklist represents what worked for me. To get better, you must back off on the weights and stay out of pain. Please check with your doctor first, as I am not a physician.
- Ice for 15-20 minutes every three or four hours or until pain is gone.
- Use an elbow strap every day and at night.
- Stretch your forearm and foam roll your upper body throughout the day.
- Perform manual self-massage. Use your fingers to get deeper into your triceps and in the elbow joint where the pain originates.
- Rest your arm and never train through pain. Avoid bicep and tricep exercises or any upper body movements that cause pain.
- Take NASIDs as needed, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, to help with swelling and pain. Use only as directed, as NASIDs have side effects.
- Get help early on. See a doctor and consider physical therapy.
Find the Cause
If you can figure out why you got tennis elbow, your healing may go faster.
- Think through any pain you have at night or upon waking. You shouldn’t ignore a pain that only occurs at night – it could lead to day time dysfunction. Sleep with a pillow under your arm and wear an elbow brace at night.
- Examine all isometric contractions you engage in repetitively; that is, holding a part of your body in a static, contracted position. This includes using a mouse, texting, driving a car, resting on your knees, and sitting or lying a certain way (or sitting at all).
- Look at changes in your lifestyle. Switching jobs, moving, traveling, new relationships, illness… any of these things can introduce new stressors to your body.
- Examine your workout and change your grip on certain exercises if helpful. Avoid pain!
- Know your weak links. Ignoring a muscle imbalance or joint pain is a mistake.
To see progress, it will take TIME. That’s what you need the most and it’s what you don’t want to give the most. Get help fast, find the best self treatment, and be patient. Play to win. What types of things do you do to prevent or take care of injuries?
This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.