How to Foam Roll for Tennis Elbow
Reviewed by Nic Bartolotta, MPT, HHP
Tennis elbow will keep you off the court for weeks, causing severe pain even when you’re trying to rest. If you’re experiencing outer elbow pain and your current treatment plan doesn’t seem to be working, this foam rolling method is for you.
We’re going to break down exactly what tennis elbow is, what’s causing it (besides tennis), and your symptoms. Then, our resident physical therapist, Nic Bartolotta, is going to walk you exactly through how to reduce your pain and treat your tennis elbow with the Rolflex foam roller in just 1-2 weeks.
What is tennis elbow?
Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is a painful outer elbow condition that’s caused by repetitive strain on the forearm muscles.
The elbow joint is made up of three bones, one from the upper arm (humerus) and two from the lower arm (ulna & radius). The tendons that control your wrist and fingers run through your elbow, connecting via the epicondyles, which are bumps on the end of the bones that make up the elbow.
There are two types of epicondyles: medial and lateral. The lateral epicondyle is located on the outer part of the elbow. Tennis elbow occurs when the tendons that attach to the outer elbow become inflamed from overuse. It’s most common in athletes who play racquet sports but can be caused by any activity that involves excessive squeezing, twisting, and turning of the forearm, wrist, and hand.
For reference, an injury to the medial epicondyle is called golfer’s elbow, which causes a similar pain on the inner elbow.
What causes tennis elbow?
Tennis & other racquet sports are the most common causes of tennis elbow because athletes constantly engage their forearm, wrist and hand to make challenging shots. Specifically, it’s caused by the backhand swing.
However, racquet sports like tennis, badminton, and squash aren’t the only culprits. Tennis elbow can be caused by any activities that involve repetitive hand & wrist movements, bending the elbow, and forearm engagement like:
- Throwing sports such as baseball, softball, javelin, and discus
- Excessive use of hand tools such as gardening shears, scissors, screwdrivers, and even power drills
- Activities that involve repeatedly bending the elbow like playing the violin or using a hammer
- Professions such as decorating, plumbing, masonry, and electricians where constant wrist & forearm movements are required
- Activities involving precise hand & finger movements such as typing and sewing
Symptoms of tennis elbow
If you’re dealing with outer elbow pain caused by playing tennis, another racquet sport, or constantly squeezing hand tools, it’s likely that you’re displaying symptoms of tennis elbow.
The condition typically presents with the following symptoms:
- Pain on the outside of your elbow
- Pain that extends from the outer elbow to the forearm, especially when lifting an object or bending your arm
- Difficulty gripping small objects, such as pens and utensils
- Sharp pain when twisting your forearm to turn a door handle or open a jar
- Pain when holding your forearm in the neutral position, such as when shaking hands or holding a drink
How To Treat Tennis Elbow With The Rolflex Foam Roller
Foam roll the forearm
Place your arm in the Rolflex and position the foam roller on your outer forearm, just below the problem area. Move the roller up & down between your wrist and elbow to massage the muscles on the outside of your forearm. This will “warm up” the muscles and start to break down the damaged scar tissue.
Don’t foam roll too close to the elbow (the problem area) as this will aggravate the injured tendons, cause further pain, and prolong your recovery time.
Continue this deep deep tissue massage for 1-2 minutes, searching for particularly tender areas. Most of these will be within inches of your elbow.
ART: below the elbow
Now that you’ve primed the forearm muscles, let’s break down and eliminate the inflamed scar tissue.
Place the foam roller over one of the tender areas near your elbow – these are called trigger points. Squeeze the handles to apply pressure, then begin to rotate your forearm and wrist to actively release the tension in the area. Perform at least 10 full rotations in both the clockwise and counterclockwise directions.
Note: This is called active release therapy (ART), a form of self-myofascial release that breaks down and restores mobility in damaged muscle tissue. You should feel the tension actively being released as the hard myofascial tissue is stripped away from the tendons.
ART: above the elbow
Place the Rolflex above the elbow joint, without applying pressure as you pass over it. Position the foam roller so that it sits on the lateral head of your tricep.
Just as you did with your wrist, bend and straighten your arm to flex the tricep muscle. As you do this, the foam roller will break up the deep, damaged tissue that’s causing your elbow pain.
Bend and straighten your arm for a total of 5-10 repetitions. After that, rotate your arm both clockwise and counterclockwise for 5-10 repetitions, stripping down the tissue and releasing the tension from the area.
This entire process should take between 3-5 minutes to complete. For best results, repeat this routine 2-3x per day for at least 1-2 weeks. You’ll begin to see improvements in pain, tension, strength, and mobility in the first few weeks, though treatment should be continued even as the pain subsides. To accelerate your recovery, supplement the foam roller treatment with rest, ice, mobility, and strength exercises.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the fastest way to cure tennis elbow?
The fastest way to cure tennis elbow is to prioritize rest while the inflammation & pain subside. Once the pain is manageable, a combination of foam rolling, ice, and mobility exercises will help you quickly recover.
Should you foam roll tendonitis?
Yes, you should foam roll the body parts above and below the injured joint. But you should never foam roll the inflamed tendons or joint directly as this will cause extreme pain and prolong your recovery time.
What movements should I avoid with tennis elbow?
Avoid any movements that place undue strain on your elbow and wrist. This obviously includes the movements that caused the injury as well as any other athletic movements such as pull-ups, pushups, bench press, and dumbbell curls. You should also avoid excessive writing, cooking, using hand tools, and sewing.