Posted by: Bob McMichael | July 27, 2010

The Cure for Tennis Elbow

Diagram of tennis elbow

My right elbow

For the past five months I have suffered the embarrassment, as well as the pain, of tennis elbow. Owing to the peculiarities of semi-ambidexterity, I have it in both arms. I just recently learned from my mother that I should have been left-handed but she didn’t want me to be (perhaps the topic of another post) and “forced” me to be right-handed by making me use my spoon with the hand you put over your heart (I remember getting this wrong a lot at elementary school assemblies).

Anyway, I believe I developed tennis elbow from over-zealously picking dandelions. I did this with both arms. We’d just listed our house, hoping to sell it in the horrible Boise real estate market last March (it’s worse now if you’re a seller). I became obsessed with making our lawn look truly unreal, and spent hours each day, for several weeks, vigorously hunting dandelions. Knowing one must extract the roots, I jammed my fingers deep into the earth to make sure I got, literally, to the bottom of things. The unusually wet spring had made the ground very soft, so it wasn’t too tough to work my wee fingers into the soil. But the repeated action of “over-using” my fingers and the connected muscles and tendons of my skinny forearms led to a gradually growing ache in my arms just below the elbow. Eventually, I could not bend either arm without wincing. My wife grew to believe I had outdone my over-achieving hypochondriac self. Adding insult to injury, we took our house off the market after a time-wasting low-ball offer, the only one we got in two months of being inconvenienced by “serious” house buyers (another blog post altogether).

In my ignorance it took me about eight weeks to self-diagnose the problem. By then, the condition had become chronic in both arms. I have to admit there was a certain amount of relief in finally understanding what was going on, and having a name to call it. But the accepted, nearly unanimous “treatment” (at least as far as I could find on the Internet) of simple rest counterbalanced the thrill of diagnosis. I had too much to do to rest my damned arms. For one, the small amount of computer work I had required me to type and use the mouse for several hours each day. It seemed that forearm-intensive tasks leaped at me each day, and my ever-weakening arms never rested.

I scoured the Web for medical aids and found several. Here’s an annotated list of what I have tried so far:

  • Ace tennis elbow support: this wraps around the forearm just below the elbow and relieves some of the tension on the tendons. I wear it all day long, every day. Without it, I have excruciating pain lifting a pencil. I’m wearing it right now.
  • Ace ice/hot pack: you can freeze or microwave this thing, which is a neoprene wrap with a pouch for the pack and a Velcro closure. I haven’t used the heat, but use the frozen pack after doing something strenuous with my arms (like weeding, blowing my nose, or opening the mail).
  • Penetrex: an ointment I found on Amazon that contains DMSO; the customer reviews were mixed but the good ones made it worth the risk of $20. You’re supposed to massage it into the affected area up to 4 times a day. I only managed two or three times a day for a couple weeks, and honestly didn’t notice any improvement. The half-used container now takes up space in the bottom of my bathroom cupboard.
  • Ibuprofen: the one true miracle drug of my generation, in my opinion. Still, taking four of these (equaling 800mg, which is the strength of one prescription Motrin tablet) has hardly made a dent in the pain or led to recovery. If anything, it’s kept the situation from getting worse after some very strenuous days using the arms for some home construction work.
  • Thera-Band: a ribbed, rubber bar, my last hope short of checking myself into a rest home. This goofy thing has gotten a lot of attention recently, as well as a lot of marketing hype. There’s a particular exercise you’re supposed to do with it that involves a motion like twisting a throttle on a motorcycle. I haven’t been religious or systematic about using it, but the several times I have done the exercises I have noticed both slight improvement and slight worsening of the pain. Ambivalence has never struck me as a good approach to achieving a goal, so I don’t really know if this thing is going to amount to anything.

It sucks getting old. And I don’t even play tennis.



  1. Fantastic site. Lots of helpful info here. I’m sending it to some buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And of course, thank you in your effort!

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