Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is an overuse injury that affects the area where the tendons of the forearm muscles attach to the bony part of the outside elbow. This causes pain in the outside of the elbow, which can also radiate from the outside of the elbow into the forearm and wrist. There can be pain when you extend your wrist and pain during certain activities such as shaking hands, turning a doorknob, or holding certain objects, such as a coffee cup. The condition can also cause forearm weakness. The pain of tennis elbow is similar to golfer’s elbow, but golfer’s elbow occurs on the inside, rather than on the outside, of the elbow.
Tennis elbow is caused by repeated contraction of the forearm muscles that are used to straighten and raise the hand and wrist- such as with the backhand stroke when playing tennis. However, there are many other common causes of tennis elbow, including using plumbing tools, playing other racket sports, painting, raking and weaving. The repeated motions and stress to the tissue may result in inflammation or a series of tiny tears in the tendons that attach the forearm muscles to the bone at the outside of the elbow.
Generally, rest is the best medicine for tennis elbow. But tennis elbow that has not been allowed to heal properly can lead to chronic pain. Using your arm too strenuously before it has properly healed can cause further damage or prevent proper healing. Analyzing what motions are causing the problem can help you to change your habits to reduce stress on the elbow. Exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the forearm can also help recovery and prevent re-injury.
Acupuncture can be a great option for dealing with tennis elbow and promoting proper healing. In Chinese medicine, almost every musculo-skeletal disorder has some relevant underlying imbalance or contributing lifestyle factor. Understanding a person’s general health gives an acupuncturist insight into the internal imbalances that can contribute to injury. Lifestyle can play a role, whether it be our occupation, the exercise or sports we choose, or our nutrition and diet. Chinese medicine also considers the role of emotion and thought in health, as they can be either the cause or the symptom of an internal balance.
With tennis elbow, and all types of musculo-skeletal injuries, pain occurs when there is stagnation of qi-energy and blood. Acupuncture treatment focuses on removing the blockage and helping the energy and blood to flow again in order to remove pain and resolve the symptoms of an injury such as tennis elbow.
In addition, we look at what underlying factors have influenced health and weakened the elbow or made it vulnerable to injury. These causes can be external (such as exposure to the elements or an external trauma or blow to the area) or internal (caused by an imbalance in the body’s normal functioning due to our genetics or our lifestyle). By also treating these underlying factors, we are actually strengthening the injured area and improving health, with the goal of preventing future reoccurrence.
In this way, acupuncture not only relieves symptoms, but goes further to address the heart of the problem, unlike other treatments such as medications, which serve only to relieve symptoms. Acupuncture shows us that the pain of tennis elbow doesn’t have to keep you from enjoying your favorite activities.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.