Sometimes referred to as tennis elbow or golfer's elbow, elbow tendonitis can make bending the elbow and wrist extremely uncomfortable. Different muscles move the joint in different ways, to bend or straighten the arm, for instance. Stretching, range-of-motion and strengthening exercises are all options used by physical therapists for treating elbow tendonitis. A doctor or licensed physical therapist can provide a specific program to treat your particular injury.
Tightness is often found not only around the elbow, but also in nearby joints, such the shoulder and wrist. Stretching exercises that make use of movements that are not painful are recommended, to avoid irritation of inflamed tissues. Two types of stretches, static and dynamic, can be beneficial for elbow tendonitis, depending on how inflamed the tissues are. Static stretches are prolonged stretches in a lengthened muscle position, and dynamic stretches are performed by lengthening the muscle in an active movement sequence.
Range of Motion Exercises
Range of motion exercises prevent the elbow joint from becoming stiff while increasing circulation to the inflamed tissues. Passive range of motion exercises involve using the opposite arm to move the affected elbow through flexion and extension, and active range of motion exercises involve the affected elbow moving itself through a given range. Passive range of motion exercises are typically tolerated earlier in recovery because there is less load placed on the irritated structures.
Resistive exercises are typically started when you can do many repetitions of active range-of-motion exercises without pain (ref 3). Resistive exercises require that the affected muscles work against resistance to build strength. Concentric exercises build strength by moving a muscle into a shortened position; a good example is a bicep curl to strengthen the biceps. Eccentric exercises build strength by lengthening a muscle through its range. Slowly extending the elbow from a flexed position can be considered an eccentric exercise. Emerging research indicates that eccentric exercise plays a key role in recovery from tendonitis (ref 2).
Your physical therapist may recommend free weights, cuff weights, or resistive bands. Resistive bands are convenient, portable and inexpensive, but since they provide the most resistance in end ranges of motion, they can sometimes exacerbate elbow tendonitis symptoms. Cuff weights allow you to use your free hand to add functional components to exercises, such as gripping a racquet or opening a jar. Your physical therapist may even instruct you to use your opposite arm as a weight, providing various forces in different directions.
Elbow tendonitis is notoriously stubborn, and can quickly progress from a minor frustration to a chronic nuisance. Performing stretches, range of motion and resistive exercises in pain-free ranges will help you avoid re-injury, but understanding when to consult a professional is also vital. If your pain increases, you cannot put weight through your affected arm, or your symptoms are accompanied by burning, tingling or numbness, consult your doctor immediately.