Can't Straighten Your Elbow Without Pain? Easy Care Strategies

Can't Straighten Your Elbow Without Pain? Easy Care Strategies

Have you ever tried to straighten your elbow and felt a sharp pain? You're not alone. 

This discomfort, commonly called tennis elbow, stems from overuse of the elbow joint. It occurs when the tendons that connect your forearm muscles to the outer bone of your elbow become inflamed. If you've noticed pain radiating down the back of your forearm when you straighten or fully extend your arm, you're likely dealing with tennis elbow.

But it’s not just tennis players who are at risk. Many sports and activities can lead to this painful condition. Let us break down the various causes of this type of elbow pain for you, as well as recovery tools, treatment strategies, and prevention tips.

Understanding Elbow Pain

Officially called lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is an inflammation of tendons in your elbow area. These tendons are crucial in connecting your forearm muscles to the outer bone of your elbow. During an activity, the muscle called the extensor carpi radialis brevis (ECRB) usually takes the brunt of the stress. But overuse can weaken this muscle, leading to minute tears in the tendon. Once these tears become inflamed, that's when the pain kicks in.

Your road to recovery will likely involve physical therapy. You can expect manual therapy techniques like soft tissue mobilization, during which the physical therapist applies consistent pressure on the tissue around your elbow. Carrying out exercises at home — for example, foam rolling — can help you regain full functionality of your elbow with significantly less pain.

Possible Causes

You’re probably wondering, “Why does my elbow hurt when I try to straighten it?” The reality is multiple conditions could be the culprit. Potential causes include:

  • Tennis elbow: People in jobs requiring repetitive, vigorous forearm use (such as athletes, painters, cooks, butchers, and carpenters) are especially prone to tennis elbow.
  • Golfer’s elbow: Officially known as medial epicondylitis, golfer’s elbow causes pain primarily on the inside part of your elbow when straightening your arm.
  • Bursitis: Tiny, fluid-filled sacs in your elbow prevent the tendons from rubbing against your bones and muscles. When these sacs fill with fluid, it leads to tenderness and difficulty bending or straightening the elbow.
  • Ulnar nerve entrapment: Also called cubital tunnel syndrome, this happens when the ulnar nerve (one of the primary nerves in your arm) is compressed. It can lead to numbness or tingling in your fingers, pain in your forearm, and weakness in your hand.
  • Biceps tendinitis: Here, the inflammation of your bicep tendon connecting your bicep muscle to bones in your shoulders and elbows might be the source of your pain. It's generally due to overuse from specific work or sports activities.
  • Elbow osteoarthritis: Sometimes, your pain could be associated with this degenerative joint disease. Cartilage within the elbow wears down, resulting in bones rubbing against each other and causing discomfort.

Treatment Options

To avoid further injury or prolonging your recovery time, it's crucial to use treatment methods based on your specific symptoms and the root cause. 

Consult your doctor or other healthcare professional to develop a thorough pain relief strategy. They’ll be able to provide a comprehensive look at your condition and ensure your treatment method is safe. One or more of the following options may be available to you. 

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is an effective technique to incorporate into your physical therapy routine. A straightforward method, foam rolling works because it loosens tight muscles and relieves tension through sustained pressure on the myofascial tissue. 

You can use one of these tools on your own, but if you’re new to the technique, avoid making standard foam rolling mistakes by asking a physical therapist to show you the proper movements. You’ll roll the tool up and down your arm to help break up muscle knots and tightness. This can reduce pain, enhance mobility, and offer numerous other benefits.

Home Remedies

Home remedies can be a practical initial approach to managing elbow pain, especially if your discomfort is due to minor injuries or strains. Applying cold packs to the area for 15 minutes every hour can help reduce inflammation and swelling. Gentle exercises are also beneficial. They promote blood flow to the area, assisting quicker healing. Additionally, avoiding activities that cause pain can prevent making your condition worse.

Another effective home remedy is wearing counterforce braces or straps. These devices apply pressure on your arm's muscle tissue, helping to relieve strain on your tendons and the muscles around your elbow.

Medical Interventions

Possible medical interventions will vary based on the severity and cause of your elbow pain. These can range from over-the-counter pain relief medications, such as ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), to physical therapy or surgical solutions.

For chronic pain, physical therapy can often play a pivotal role. A therapist will guide you through tailored exercises that strengthen or relieve pressure in your arm muscles, such as a forearm massage. They may also ask you to perform stretching or other exercises to improve mobility or flexibility. This can reduce your pain in the long run.

Prevention Strategies

Elbow pain can be excruciating and disruptive to your daily routine, so prevention is critical. Since most elbow problems result from overuse, simple prevention strategies revolve around avoiding any activity that requires repetitive actions. Be mindful of the following tips to spare yourself from future discomfort.  

  • Regularly stretch or foam roll. Remember to warm up, stretch, and foam roll before and after exercising. These vital steps will prepare your muscles for activity and assist with recovery between workouts, reducing the likelihood of injury.
  • Listen to your body. If you're playing a sport or using repetitive motions that cause elbow discomfort, it's time to hit pause. Your body communicates when it is under strain, and by acknowledging these signals, you can prevent minor injuries from escalating into chronic issues.
  • Practice proper techniques. Whether lifting weights, swinging a racket, or typing at your desk, there’s a right and wrong way to perform these actions. Research the correct mechanics and implement them in your activities to avoid unnecessary stress on your elbow joint.
  • Strengthen your arms. Try incorporating strengthening exercises into your workouts. Focusing on core fitness and the muscles supporting your arm can give your elbow better support.
  • Use supportive equipment. Look into using braces, bands, or other supportive gear during activities that put extra strain on your forearm muscles and tendons. Such equipment can provide relief, minimizing the chances of flare-ups that could lead to longer-term problems.

Frequently Asked Questions

When is elbow pain considered severe?

Elbow pain might be severe if you’ve experienced a sudden injury with a snap or cracking sound. Severe pain, swelling, bruising around the joint, or trouble moving your elbow or arm as usual could indicate a severe condition.

What benefits are there in massage for a golfer's elbow?

A "transverse friction massage" technique can help treat the condition commonly called a golfer's elbow. This involves an expert massaging the affected tendons and muscles to promote healing. Additionally, performing a self-massage with the proper technique can be helpful, too. For example, the benefits of foam rolling can include reduced muscle soreness, the release of endorphins, improved circulation, and more.

Can tennis elbow be confused with other conditions?

It’s possible to mistake a tennis elbow for a golfer's elbow since both conditions affect the elbow joint. Both situations involve overworked, inflamed tendons and result in severe pain. While it’s possible to relieve tennis elbow pain with foam rolling and other at-home measures if your elbow pain is significant or persistent, it’s best to see a health professional for guidance.

Is squeezing a ball for a golfer's elbow beneficial?

Grip-strengthening exercises using a squishy or “stress” ball can help to prevent golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow. Hold the ball in your hand and gently squeeze. Over time, this can strengthen the muscles in your arm, providing better support to your elbow joint and tendons.

Image by Anupong Thongchan from Shutterstock

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