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Tennis Elbow: What It Is and How to Treat It With Exercise

Are you experiencing elbow pain on a regular basis? This could be due to a condition called lateral epicondylitis, or simply tennis elbow. And no, not only tennis players suffer from this condition. Anyone who works with their hands a lot, be it due to their occupation or just at home, can get tennis elbow. In this article, we will show you how to reduce pain and strengthen the elbows and wrists with the use of simple exercises and self-massage.

What is tennis elbow?

Tennis Elbow Exercises elbow pain

Lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) occurs with the overuse of the tendons and muscles in the elbow, particularly the extensor carpi radialis brevis muscle that’s right above the elbow. This painful health condition is especially common among painters, plumbers, cooks, tennis players, and other occupations that require you to complete repetitive motions with the arm or wrist. Even daily use of a computer or hairbrush can lead to tennis elbow.

Pain caused by tennis elbow is localized in the bump on the outside of the elbow, and it tends to get progressively worse, spreading to the forearm and wrist muscles. A simple test for tennis elbow is this: extend your arms in front of you and lift the wrist up in the direction of the forearm. If there's elbow pain, you could have tennis elbow. Those suffering from tennis elbow may also notice that it’s painful or difficult for them to complete daily tasks like gripping or holding objects or turning doorknobs.

Can exercise help tennis elbow?

Normally, your doctor will prescribe ice, rest, and over-the-counter pain relievers for an acute case of tennis elbow. Once the inflammation is down and the area is not so sore and tender, a physical therapist can recommend that you complete specific stretching and strengthening exercises to reduce inflammation and strengthen the forearm muscles.

Completing strengthening exercises, in particular, is extremely important because it will help prevent future pain and halt the progression of the condition. Since tennis elbow occurs due to inflammation and micro-tears in the elbow tendons, strengthening the arm and wrist muscles will take pressure off the elbows.

Strengthening exercises for tennis elbow

1. Ball grip and squeeze

Tennis Elbow Exercises grip and squeeze
Remember the extensor carpi radialis brevis muscle we mentioned earlier? Well, this muscle extends from the elbow all the way to the middle finger. This is why tennis elbow can lead to reduced grip strength. If you find it difficult to hold onto objects and feel like your hands are getting weaker, start doing this ball squeeze exercise twice a day, and you will notice a positive difference in a short time.
All you have to do is hold a stress ball (or just a ball of socks) and give it a good squeeze for 5 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds, and then repeat the same exercise again 9 more times. Then, switch to the other hand. Over time, you can increase the number of repetitions to 15. Once you’ve reached that goal, you can pick up the intensity even further and do this exercise for up to 3 sets of 15 repetitions with a break of a few minutes between each set.

2. Reverse wrist curl

Tennis Elbow Exercises  Reverse wrist curl

The reverse wrist curl is one of the key strengthening moves for those suffering from tennis elbow because it targets the wrist extensor muscles involved in the condition. It’s safer to start doing this exercise with no weights whatsoever. Over time, you can start doing it while holding a 16 oz (0.5 l) water bottle, which weighs a little over 1 pound (0.5 kg). When at last you'll feel confident about your muscle strength, you can graduate to a 3-5 pound (1.5-2.5 kg) dumbbell.

Here’s how to do this exercise step by step:

1. Place the forearm on a flat surface with the palm facing down and the wrist hanging beyond the edge. The wrist should be straight.
2. Make a fist. Lower the fist down while flexing the wrist. 
3. Lift the fist up as high as possible, reversing the previous movement.
4. Do this exercise 10 times, then switch to the other hand.

3. Wrist twist

Tennis Elbow Exercises Wrist twist

While tennis elbow involves the wrist extensor muscles, exercising all of the forearm muscles is necessary to alleviate symptoms because an imbalance in muscle strength can contribute to pain. This exercise is not only fun, to say the least, but it’s also very beneficial for your wrist strength because it targets a group of muscles we often neglect. These muscles, called the supinator and pronator muscles, govern the side-to-side motions of the wrists, and they need strengthening too.

Start doing this exercise with a full 16 oz (0.5 l) water bottle and then move to a 2-3 pound (1-1.5 kg) dumbbell.

To complete this exercise, follow these steps:

1. Sit down with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a water bottle in the left hand. 
2. Rest the left elbow on the left knee. The palm of the left hand should be looking up. Now twist the hand clockwise as far as you can. Ideally, the palm should be now facing down.
3. Hold for a couple of seconds and then turn the hand back to the initial position. 
4. Do this exercise 10 times, then switch to the right side. 

Over time, you can increase the number of repetitions to 15. Once you feel comfortable with that you can start doing multiple sets - up to 3 sets (a total of 45 reps) on each side.

4. Towel twist

The towel twist exercise is a fun strengthening exercise for elbow pain. This exercise is great because it targets both the wrist flexor and wrist extensor muscles. As you can probably tell from the name, you’ll need a small rolled-up towel (like a hand towel) to complete this exercise. You’ll be mimicking the motion of wringing out a towel.

Follow these steps to complete this exercise:

1. Sit in a chair with your feet hip-width apart. The back must be straight and the shoulders relaxed. 
2. Hold the towel at each end with your hands, palms looking down. Elbows can be slightly bent.
3. Start twisting the towel in opposite directions on each end, as if you were wringing it out. 
4. Reverse the movement, returning to the initial position. Do 10 repetitions in total.

Related Article: 4 Simple Hand Exercises to Alleviate Arthritis Symptoms

5. Wrist curl

Tennis Elbow Exercises Wrist curl

To keep your forearm muscles balanced and happy and your elbows pain-free, it’s also important to exercise the wrist flexor muscles. The wrist curl is a good exercise to strengthen the latter. Like the reverse wrist curls, you can do this exercise with or without weights.

To complete this exercise, follow these steps:

1. Place the forearm on a flat surface with the palm facing up and the wrist hanging beyond the edge. The wrist should be straight.
2. Extend the wrist towards the floor and then pull it back up as high as you can. 
3. Repeat the motion 10 times and then switch to the other hand.

Please share these exercises with others!

H/T: The Healthy, Mayo Clinic, HCAH

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