Acupuncture for Tennis Elbow

by Shelley Conn, L. Ac.

It usually begins gradually—until you can no longer ignore the pain. You may feel a sharp jab when you’re shaking hands, playing golf, or on the tennis court. Tennis Elbow can plague all kinds of athletes, not just tennis players. The pain usually begins with a dull ache or tenderness on the outer part of the elbow. At first it may come and go, with the pain usually subsiding a day or so after the aggravating physical activity. After a while, you may notice that the nagging in your elbow is a constant and unwanted companion, achy all the time with intermittant jolts of pain if you use it in just the wrong way.

Tennis Elbow is also known as tendonitis, which means that the tendons in your elbow are inflamed. Tendons attach muscle to bone, and the muscles involved in Tennis Elbow are those on the top of your forearm. Tendonitis is usually the result of overuse or repetitive movements that put extra pressure on the tendon. This constant stress on the tendon causes small tears, which your body tries to repair, but the continual activity slows down the healing process, resulting in more tears and more pain.

Usually the pain you feel with Tennis Elbow is on the outside of the elbow, and it becomes worse when you’re grasping or twisting objects (Tennis racquet, hammer, opening jars, etc.). The pain may increase in the evening and can even make it difficult for you to sleep. Over time, the pain may radiate to other parts of your arm, especially as you try to compensate for the pain by using other parts of your body. Interestingly, there is rarely swelling associated with Tennis Elbow.

Golfers can also be affected with Tennis Elbow, but it presents in a slightly different way. Tendonitis associated with tennis tends to affect the outside of the elbow with the pain radiating down the outside of the forearm and into the wrist. Golfer’s Elbow usually affects the inside of the elbow (closer to your body) with pain radiating down the underside of the forearm and into the wrist.

Tendonitis, whether from tennis or golf is a fairly common condition. It’s prevalence increases with age as our tendons become less flexible. Incidence is higher in athletes for obvious reasons, with Golfer’s Elbow being more common in men.

Acupuncture can be a very effective treatment for tendonitis, either as an adjunct to standard Western treatments or on its own. According to Chinese medical theory, acupuncture works because we humans have a natural flow of energy throughout our body. Actually, we know that every cell in our body produces this energy, the Chinese simply believe that it flows through a series of pathways. When that energy becomes blocked in one or more of the pathways, the energy becomes like a dam in a river. There is too much pressure on one side of the dam, and a restriction of flow on the other. This “energy dam” in the body can produce a variety of symptoms; one of the most common being pain.

By inserting very fine, sterile acupuncture needles into specific points on your body, an acupuncturist can break up these blockages that restrict the flow of energy. By stimulating these points, the energy can move smoothly, enabling your body to heal itself.

Beyond acuupncture, a practitioner of Chinese medicine might also use heat, herbs or a kind of bodywork called Tui Na to treat Tennis Elbow. Standard treatments for Tennis and Golfer’s Elbow include over-the-counter NSAIDs like Ibuprofen and Naprosen (Advil and Alleve), physical therapy, stretching, and rest.

The best first line of treatment for tendonitis of the elbow would be rest. By restricting movement of that affected joint, you’re allowing it to heal. If you absolutely must play tennis or golf, be sure to warm up your elbow first. A regular heating pad or rice bag is fine. After you’ve played, be sure to ice the tender area to keep the inflammation to a minimum.

By combining acupuncture with common sense and a dose of rest, you should be out playing pain-free in no time!

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