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You need patience to get through an elbow injury

Even with proper treatment, recovery may take months. Cortisone shots and exercise can help.

September 06, 2004|John Briley | Washington Post

About a month ago I tried to sweat out the stress of a bad day by crushing tennis balls. The result: tennis elbow (formally, lateral epicondylitis), an acute pain on the outside of my forearm just below the elbow every time I lift something.

My error? I failed to warm up properly. Warming up relaxes the muscle and sends blood where muscle, tendon and arm bone meet. (Warm muscles and tendons are less likely to strain and tear than cold ones.) Then I compounded the problem by over-hitting the ball, which caused small tears in the tendon.

Even with proper treatment, tennis elbow can take up to four months to heal. Reconditioning exercises help to speed recovery. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as Advil, Tylenol and Aleve), which circulate in the bloodstream, probably won't provide much pain relief because so little blood gets to the hot spot.

Want something more effective? "There is nothing wrong with a little cortisone," says Carl MacCartee, a Washington, D.C., orthopedic surgeon who has worked with dozens of professional athletes. Problems arise, he said, when patients think cortisone is the cure. "You see people getting cortisone shots every six weeks and they trash their elbows because they refuse to do the stretching and strengthening exercises needed to help the area heal."

To stretch an injured tendon, MacCartee recommends holding your arm straight out in front of you, pointing your fingers toward the ground and rotating your palm inward (so that your thumb is pointing away from you). Do this exercise three or four times, holding each for five seconds.

To strengthen the tendon, do wrist curls with a 3- to 5-pound dumbbell. Ice the area after intensive use, MacCartee says.

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