Tennis elbow is a common and often painful condition. Despite its prevalence, there are plenty of misconceptions about it (most people who experience this condition don’t even play tennis!). In fact, doctors have been re-naming tennis elbow since the early 19th century, with other monikers like “washer woman’s elbow” or “writer’s cramp.” Tennis elbow can occur as a single event, or as a chronic condition that can last years.
Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatments for tennis elbow is important to achieving relief for aching joints. While there are a variety of ways to relive the pain from this condition, the use of tennis elbow braces comes with its own set of misconceptions, which can lead to painful consequences. Understanding how these braces work and how to use them correctly is critical for effective, proper healing.
What is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow, or “lateral epicondylitis,” is a painful condition that can be caused by injury or repeated strain. Characterized by pain on the outside of the elbow, this condition is common and affects up to three percent of the population, with these numbers increasing after the age of 40. It is frequently seen in tennis players because of the rigorous strain on the elbow, and can occur in one or both arms. Besides tennis players, this condition also commonly affects those who work strenuous jobs that involve repetitive force or vibration.
The elbow is a complex joint. Muscles and tendons attach to the bones on the outside of the elbow, and repeated strain to this joint can lead to damage to the tendon. Sometimes, the tendon can even develop small tears, but this is not usually the case. Low blood flow to tendons and improper care can lead to chronic, recurring tennis elbow, which can become very frustrating over time.
Relieving the pain with orthotics
The painful inflammation from tennis elbow can be mild to severe, and can last from just a few days to years. To help with pain and inflammation, doctors will commonly prescribe over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen. Other immediate sources of relief include ice, topical creams, or sometimes steroid injections.
Many patients with persistent or chronic tennis elbow also find relief with braces, straps, and bands, which come in several shapes and varieties. These work by supporting the joint and applying counter-forces to the region in pain, essentially redistributing tension and relieving stress in the affected area. Each of these orthotics can be useful for reducing pain and lowering the risk of further injury, but correct use is essential to prevent even more damage from occurring.
Tennis elbow braces are some of the most common orthotics to relieve pain. They cover the elbow itself, and slip on over the hand and up the arm. Braces come in a range of sizes, from a small fitting over the elbow, to larger sleeve-styles. The best relief with braces usually comes with some experimentation, with different sizes and styles appropriate for different lifestyles and needs.
Straps and Bands
The tennis elbow strap sits on the forearm below the elbow, and may have a cushion or cup seated on the outside of the arm. The tightened strap applies a counter force to the muscles and tendons in the elbow. It’s important not to pull too tight, however; one finger should still be able to slide in between the strap and the skin. Similar to straps, bands also sit below the elbow, but these do not have a cushion. They are also snug around the forearm to provide a counter force and reduce tension on the elbow.
NOTE: these styles are commonly called braces, but are really straps and bands.
Improper Use of Braces
Even though braces are widely used and recommended to reduce pain from tennis elbow, it’s essential to use them properly to avoid making the problem even worse. While researchers have shown that braces and sleeves can result in immediate improvement of pain-free grip strength, this does not mean that they should be worn all the time. In fact constant use of braces could actually slow down the healing process – or even cause more damage.
It’s important to think of tennis elbow braces as a form of prevention rather than treatment. Whereas casts and splints are designed to immobilize a damaged muscle or bone, a tennis elbow brace is a useful tool to prevent further damage during high-risk activities. This means wearing orthotics during sporting activities like golf or tennis, during periods of heavy lifting, or during other short-term activities that strain the joints and muscles of the arm. Other times, such as while sleeping, walking, or working at a computer do not require a tennis elbow brace. Wearing a brace during these times can actually further limit blood flow to the already restricted tendons in the elbow. Extreme overuse can lead to slower healing times, scar tissue, or even more damage to the tendon.
As with all injuries, the best way to avoid pain, recurrence, or further development down the line is prevention. For athletes, this means wearing adequate protective gear and maintaining proper technique and form. Avoiding putting repeat stress on joints is also important for others at-risk like painters or mechanics. Tennis elbow can be frustrating. But with a little understanding of pain management, treatment, prevention, and healing, relief is possible. Tendons heal slowly, much slower than muscles, and require patience and targeted care.