Forearm pain can make simple everyday tasks, such as getting milk out of the fridge, seem like a big deal. You might even find yourself dropping things. It can seem like this pain came out of nowhere, but in reality, these injuries most often develop over time from overuse of your forearm muscles and arm tendons. Luckily, conservative treatment is helpful for forearm tendonitis in most cases.
Treatment for forearm muscle and tendon injuries can include rest, ice, compression, stretching and strengthening. Less commonly, surgery might be required.
Anatomy and Sore Forearms
Muscles on the front of your forearm produce flexion, or forward bending, of your fingers and wrist. Muscles on the back of your forearm generally perform extension, or straightening of the fingers and backward bending of the wrist. There are additional muscles on each side of the forearm that move your thumb.
Although there are many forearm muscles, the majority of them come together to connect to one of two main tendons — the common extensor tendon and the common flexor tendon. The extensor tendon is located on the outside of the elbow, while the flexor tendon sits on the inside of your elbow.
Because your fingers and wrists are involved in virtually all daily tasks, these muscles and tendons are subject to injury. Most common are overuse injuries, but direct trauma can also occur.
Inner Forearm Pain
Injury to or inflammation of the common flexor tendon on your inner forearm is called medial epicondylitis — often referred to as golfer's elbow. Muscles that pronate the forearm, or rotate it into a palm-down position, also attach to this tendon.
According to a 2015 article published by the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, this painful condition results in progressive degeneration of the tendon. Although it is named golfer's elbow, this condition is also common in tennis and overhead sports. It can also develop from jobs that require repeated forceful forward bending of the wrist and/or a lot of firm gripping.
In addition to pain on the inside of the elbow, medial epicondylitis can cause forearm swelling and weakness with wrist flexion, gripping and pronation of the forearm.
Outer Forearm Pain
Lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, describes injury to or inflammation of the common extensor tendon on the outside of the elbow. Muscles that rotate your forearm into a palm-up position, called supination, are also in this area of the forearm.
Most often, this injury is associated with damage to a specific muscle called the extensor carpi radialis brevis, or ECRB. Tiny tears can develop in this muscle as it rubs over the bones in your forearm, especially with repeated use. This muscle is responsible for stabilizing your wrist when your elbow is straight and repeatedly absorbs high impact forces during racquet sports.
In addition to athletes, tennis elbow is common among people who perform manual labor such as painters, carpenters, butchers and cooks — pretty much any occupation that involves repetitive wrist movements. Tennis elbow can also cause swelling, but on the outside of the elbow. Along with weakness of wrist extension, this condition can also cause weak grip as these muscles help position the wrist during gripping activities.
Home Remedies for Forearm Pain
First-line treatment for a muscle strain in any area of the body is the R.I.C.E. protocol — rest, ice, compression and elevation. Resting does not mean stopping all activity. But you should avoid activities that increase your forearm pain. This can be quite difficult as your hands are used for just about every task you perform in a day, but increased pain means increased damage and longer recovery time.
Ice your forearm for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, every few hours. If there was a specific trauma that caused your injury, your forearm will likely be inflamed. Limit treatment to cold for the first 72 hours after injury to avoid increasing inflammation and to help reduce swelling.
A compression wrap can be applied to your forearm to further help reduce or prevent swelling. When resting, prop your arm above the level of your heart.
Tennis Elbow Strap
Bracing can be helpful when treating forearm tendonitis. A tennis elbow strap can be worn during activity around your upper forearm to help reduce the amount of stress on the tendons that connect forearm muscles to bone. Straps can also be effective for golfer's elbow.
In severe cases of forearm tendonitis, your doctor or physical therapist might recommend that you wear a wrist-immobilizing brace for a short period of time to prevent the injured muscles and tendons from working.
Stretch Your Forearms
HOW TO DO IT: Straighten one arm out in front of you at shoulder height, with your palm down. Gently press on the back of your hand with the opposite hand until you feel a stretch along the back of your forearm. If this stretch is too intense, bend your elbow slightly. Repeat this process with your arm in a palm-up position.
Stretch both sides of your forearm, even if only one is injured. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat three times on both arms. Do not stretch to the point of pain — some discomfort or pulling is normal, but pain can indicate that you are causing further damage to your muscles or tendons.
Improve Your Strength
Strengthening forearm muscles can help improve weakness that can occur with tendonitis or muscle injury. It can also help prevent future re-injury to your forearm.
HOW TO DO IT: Sit with your forearm supported on an armrest or table in a palm-down position with your wrist over the edge of the table. Hold a small dumbbell (one or two pounds) or a can of food as a substitution. Hold the item firmly and allow your wrist to bend forward over the edge of the table. Place your opposite hand on the back of your forearm, near your wrist for support. This is the starting position.
Lift the dumbbell as high as possible, without allowing your forearm to lift off the surface. Hold for two to three seconds, then lower slowly back down. Repeat 10 times and work up to three sets in a row before increasing the weight. Repeat this process in two more positions — neutral forearm, with thumb pointed up to the ceiling and a palm-up position.
Forearm Pain Medical Intervention
In some cases, conservative treatment is not successful for forearm muscle and tendon injuries. Doctors can use steroid injections to reduce pain and inflammation, or less commonly, surgical intervention might be required.
- Massachusetts General Hospital Orthopaedics: Medial Epicondylitis (Golfer Elbow)
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis)
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Therapeutic Exercise Program for Epicondylitis (Tennis Elbow/Golfer's Elbow)
- The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Medial Epicondylitis: Evaluation and Management
- Mayo Clinic: Muscle Strains: Diagnosis and Treatment
- American Family Physician: Evaluation of Elbow Pain in Adults