Tennis Elbow; Part 1

I’ve been asked by several readers to do something on tennis elbow. I would estimate I see at least two cases of the disease every day I’m in clinic, so it definitely warrants attention.
Tennis elbow was originally called washerwoman’s elbow. That’s because in those days there weren’t that many people playing tennis and they certainly weren’t whacking the ball with the intensity with which we now perform that task. But there were lots of women employed as cleaning ladies. There were no Swiffer sticks and Clorox wipes. You used rags, and you wrung them out in a bucket of water…over and over again.

But if you prefer our technical term; lateral epicondylitis is what we professionals (those having stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night) like to call it. And we use that term because the vast majority of patients with this particular scourge haven’t even touched a tennis racquet. So when I tell them they have tennis elbow, I get a curious look from them…the I-haven’t-touched-a-tennis-racquet-since-high-school look. Then I have to go through a long explanation regarding the nomenclature and why it’s called tennis elbow and why they have it even though they don’t play tennis. But it’s easier to call it tennis elbow than lateral epicondylitis. Less syllables. Of course, when I tell them they have lateral epicondylitis, many times I get the oh-my-God-what-is-that-disease look. And then they tell me they just thought they had tennis elbow. You can’t win.

And even the term lateral epicondylitis doesn’t describe the disease accurately. The lateral epicondyle is that little gumball sized lump on the outside of your elbow. But the disease isn’t really inflammation of that bone. It’s a disease of the tendons which originate from that spot. So now you see what I have to deal with. But I digress.

Many of you are going to get this disease. It’s another one of those adult repetitive strain disorders. You get it after 30/40 and have the potential to get it until you’re about 65. I can’t remember the last time I saw a teenager with this. Even tennis playing teens rarely get it nowadays. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a retiree with it.

Most of us get it doing the mundane activities of daily living. That’s because the tendons which get inflamed are the tendons you use every day to do things like lift your coffee cup, wring out a washcloth, grab your tennis racquet and lift the heaviest weights. And you use this muscle group over and over and over again. And one day it just says, “That’s it. I’m done. Kaput. Lay your arm down and lay it down now!” But no. You don’t lay your arm down because you wouldn’t lay your arm down unless the bone was broken in two and sticking out of the skin!

May I first suggest that you lay your arm down…for at least a little while? More of what to do…and not to do next time.

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