The elbow joint is a complex structure, comprising three bones, multiple ligaments, and tendon insertions. Any of these can become injured, leading to pain and disability
However, the most common cause of injuries to this joint are repeated movement, causing what is called a 'repetitive stress injury', or RSI.
RSI occurs when you perform the same activity repeatedly over a period of time, without allowing enough time for rest. The tendons, muscles and joints involved in the activity gradually become inflamed due to overuse and cause pain, swelling, stiffness and eventual weakness.
Frequently seen causes of these types of injuries-
- Sports: Activities that involve repeated swinging or hitting- think tennis, badminton, golf, swimming- can cause these types of symptoms. Weight-bearing activities, such as yoga and gymnastics, may also cause the same.
- This is why it is vital to follow a training program set by a coach to avoid suddenly overexerting the joint.
- Daily Activities: Sweeping, kneading and rolling dough or squeezing water out of clothes are some activities that can cause pain at the elbow. The tendons that attach muscles to the bone begin to develop microscopic teras from strain and overuse, causing mild swelling and pain while performing the movements. Although they will heal, rest and proper strengthening are vital to prevent the same issue from happening again.
- Work-Related Activity: Using a computer mouse or stylus, painting, using industrial tools, playing an instrument etc are all examples of activities that cause overuse. If you are in a profession that requires this, you should consider a basic stretching routine before you start work for the day, and adding a strengthening component to your daily workout. Most companies with heavy industrial work provide this; if you do not have access to this, ask a physiotherapist and they will be happy to help!
- Sudden Exertion: Those who are sedentary all week and suddenly play a sport or hit the gym on the weekends are prone to overuse injury, simply because they are not used to it. Called 'weekend warriors', a good warm up routine and a proper cool down go a long way toward preventing a painful Monday.
- Ice: Icing helps reduce the blood flow to the area, which is already swollen and inflamed. This relieves pain and helps regain some amount of movement. Do not apply heat to the area; this may give temporary relief, but it can actually increase blood supply and prolong swelling.
- Rest: You don't have to stop the activity entirely. Depending on your level of pain and the severity of the condition, your physiotherapist will advise you to cut down on time spent doing the activity, add rest breaks, or modify it. Continuing to perform the same movement will aggravate the problem and prolong the recovery period.
- Modalities: You may be prescribed ultrasound or laser therapy to help with healing. This is always in addition to an exercise program.
- Exercise: Stretching and strengthening are both essential to avoid recurrence. The type of exercise you require differs depending on the tissue which is injured, so seek help from a physiotherapist before beginning any exercises at home.
- Medication: A physician or orthopedic surgeon may prescribe you anti-inflammatory medicines to help with the pain and swelling. Even if these provide relief immediately, remember that they do not remove the caue of the problem. Stick to your activity modification and exercise protocol even after taking these medications.
- Surgery: May be required in rare cases where physiotherapy and medication have not been enough to provide relief.