Physiotherapy & Elbow Injuries

Your elbows are joints that effectively allow you to move your arms in the way that you do, articulating the upper and lower arm to allow for a considerably broader range of motion. Elbow injuries are, therefore, quite common and when they do happen, can be quite limiting. They most commonly affect athletes competing in racket sports, although injury is certainly not limited to this field.

How the elbow works and can be injured

The elbow is a joint linking the upper and lower arm, the upper arm being composed of a single bone, the Humerus, and the lower arm constituting the Radius and Ulna. The elbow is a fairly simple joint, but it is reasonably isolated in the sense that it lacks the supporting musculature and structures of the shoulder or back for example.

The elbow can be injured by hyper-extension, overloading, or sudden trauma that places pressure on the joint in a manner it is not designed to cope with. The best way to illustrate the nature of elbow injuries is by way of examples of common elbow injuries:

  • Golfers elbow (Medial Epicondylitis) – typically presents with a radiating pain that begins in the inner elbow and extends along the forearm. This pain is experienced when the elbow is moved or the hand is moved at the wrist. The condition actually begins as inflammation of tendons of the forearm that connect to the upper arm bone (Humerus), the cause is actually any kind of activity that involves prolonged gripping, e.g. weight lifting, digging, and hammering. Over time, if untreated, this condition becomes a chronic one that can involve pain, weakness, and tendon degeneration.
  • Tennis elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis) – is probably the most well known elbow injury, and presents with pain on the outside (lateral) part of the elbow which can extend or radiate down the forearm. About 3% of the population are affected by this, a figure mostly composed of working professionals as only 5% of sufferers are people who play racket sports. The condition begins as an inflammation of what are called extensor tendons that attach above the elbow joint to your Humerus. Tennis elbow is easily diagnosed as sufferers experience pain where a part of the elbow called the Lateral Epicondyle is touched. The pain is worsened by gripping, and diagnosis can be confirmed by an X-ray.

Treatment of elbow injuries

Both Golfer’s and Tennis elbow are inflammatory conditions which are treated medically by anti-inflammatory drugs called NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs). The first stage of the treatment is dealing with the inflammation, and after treatment with NSAIDs and often an ice pack or compression strap, a physiotherapist is called in to assess and treat the patient.

A physiotherapist will work with the patient to strengthen the elbow gradually, because the condition can actually worsen by long term use of NSAID drugs, the physiotherapeutic aspect is key to facilitating a complete recovery. Most physios will begin with stretches and exercises which flex the joint and move it in different planes. After this has been successfully achieved by your physio, they will use elastic resistance bands to strengthen the elbow and relevant muscles.

Prevention is also an important part of the physiotherapist’s role. Both conditions are basically caused by extended gripping, and merely affect different dimensions of the elbow joint. If you are working with anything that requires extended gripping and are worried about developing an elbow condition, consult a physio for exercises and tips to prevent future injury. They will suggest that you make sure your equipment fits your hand well to avoid any extra stress, that you take regular breaks, and that you practice stretches to keep things loose.

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