Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is a painful elbow condition. Tennis elbow can be caused by inflammation or micro-tears in the tendons that join the forearm muscles on the outside of the elbow. The most commonly involved tendon is the extensor carpi radialis brevis, and the condition is typically treated with rest, physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and steroid injections, among other, less common treatments.
You can get tennis elbow by playing tennis or other racquet sports, but that isn't the only cause — overuse in any sport or activity can lead to tennis elbow. For example, people with jobs that involve repetitive motions of the wrist and arm are more likely to develop tennis elbow.
Exercises to Help Tennis Elbow
There are many treatment options for tennis elbow, but the best place to start is with strengthening and stretching exercises. The following exercises focus on slow, deliberate motions.
Stress Ball Squeeze
Squeezing a stress ball can improve grip strength. Eventually, you can graduate to using a hand grip strengthener.
Step 1: Hold a stress ball, tennis ball, or rolled up sock in your hand.
Step 2: Make a fist around the ball and squeeze.
Step 3: Hold for about five seconds, and then relax your hand for five to ten seconds.
Repeat 8 to 12 times, then switch to holding the ball in your other hand and perform the squeezing exercise again.
Wrist Extension and Flexion Stretch
Wrist extensors and wrist flexors are groups of muscles that connect into the elbow and are often subject to overuse, which leads to pain and inflammation. This stretching exercise should be done before any physical activity involving your affected elbow(s). It can be done daily.
Step 1: Straighten your arm so that it's perpendicular to the floor, bending your wrist back as if signalling “stop” with your hand.
Step 2: Use your other hand to gently pull your fingers back toward you until you feel a stretch on the inside of your forearm.
Step 3: Hold the stretch for 15 seconds.
You can repeat this five times, then perform the stretch on the other arm. Afterward, flip your arm over and complete the stretch with your fingertips facing down.
Like the previous stretch, the towel twist exercises the wrist muscles that connect to your elbow. All you need is a towel to exercise these muscles.
Step 1: Sit in a straight-back chair, holding a towel in both hands, and relax your shoulders.
Step 2: Twist the towel in opposite directions (one hand rolling forward, the other pulling back) as though you’re wringing out water.
Step 3: After ten twists, repeat going in opposite directions.
Repeat two to three times. This towel twist exercise can be done every day.
Forearm Supination & Pronation
To complete this strengthening exercise, start with your arm bent up to 90 degrees and your forearm supported on a sturdy surface with your wrist "hanging" off. Perform this exercise without weight first.
Step 1: Begin with your palm facing the side. Slowly turn the palm facing up.
Step 2: Slowly return to the starting position, then slowly turn the palm down.
Step 3: Slowly return to the starting position again. This completes one repetition.
If and when you can perform 30 repetitions on two consecutive days without increasing pain, begin performing the exercise using a one-pound weight. Follow the same steps above to continue to increase repetitions and weight until you are using a three-pound weight. This exercise can be performed once a day five to seven days a week.
Though curls can sometimes aggravate tennis elbow pain, it is very important to strengthen the muscles around your affected elbow.
Step 1: Step one foot out in front of the other.
Step 2: Loop one end of a resistance band under your back foot and hold the other end (or the handle) with your palm facing up.
Step 3: Pull the band up and curl your arm toward your shoulder. You can also use a dumbbell — start with a very light weight.
Repeat the curl exercise 10 times for three sets. You can do these curl exercises three days a week, taking one day off between.
Keep in mind that the above stretching and strengthening exercises are intended to relieve your tennis elbow pain, not aggravate it. Make sure you use smooth, controlled motions when completing your tennis elbow exercise regimen.
If your tennis elbow pain gets worse after any of the above exercises, ice the painful area and take an over-the-counter pain reliever — try a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) like Ibuprofen. If your pain worsens or continues thereafter, contact your primary care doctor. You may need physical therapy.