In some parts of the country, Spring has come early this year and many of my patients are excited to be getting outside again to play golf, tennis, or just do their lawn and garden chores! Like them, you may be gearing up to get started with all your outdoor activities. However, as I tell my patients, taking a little precaution first before all those arm-heavy activities will help you prevent painful, stiff joints, that can lead to elbow arthritis. Here’s what I recommend:
How To Prevent Elbow Over-Use/Arthritis
After being cooped up in the house most the winter, the warmer, sunny weather has many people out in their shirtsleeves and shorts. They’re outside hitting tennis balls, on the course swinging golf clubs, washing windows, trimming tree branches, cleaning gutters or out washing their cars. People want to take advantage of the beautiful weather so much that they may wind up overusing their arms doing a lot of repetitive movements that can create elbow joint problems. Here are some things I recommend before starting all your activities:
- Stretching. You may have stayed active all winter exercising, but like me, you’ve probably noticed the first time you swing that tennis racket or golf club, or do some outdoor chores you haven’t done in several months, you can really feel it the next day. Stretching before doing any kind of new activity is always a good idea. It can prevent tight muscles around joints, like the elbows, from being pulled in such a way as to cause strain, which leads to pain and stiffness. Gradually build up the amount of arm/elbow activities you do to prevent over-use damage and symptoms.
- Omega-3’s. Daily intake of Omega-3s like fish or krill oil, flax seeds, olive oil, can help keep your joints moving fluidly without inflammation or pain. If you’ve been taking these all winter, you’re half the way there to preventing elbow problems and/or arthritis. If you haven’t been taking these regularly, start now.
- Water intake. I always tell my patients to be sure they are drinking enough water to help lubricate joints. Overall dehydration also dries out joint fluids and can cause inflammation (and pain) to set in when you begin using your joints more frequently. Drink half your weight in water every day.
Symptoms of Elbow Over-Use/Arthritis
Your elbows are some of the first joints to talk back to you if you’ve over-used them. Here are some symptoms that tell you you’ve overused your elbow joints and may be on the way to developing arthritis:
- Pain. This may be worse with turning, or extending, the forearm, and occurs mostly on the outside of the elbow joint. Usually pain subsides with rest, if not you may need physical therapy.
- Stiffness/swelling. The joint can become inflamed and may collect some fluid around it in an effort to heal the inflammation. This makes it difficult to move the joint completely and comfortably.
- Locking. This can happen if arthritis has already set in and you have really overused the joint, aggravating a flare-up of arthritis.
What You Can Do For Elbow Overuse/Arthritis
Once you’ve overused your elbow joint(s), and have brought on symptoms like those mentioned above, here are some things you can do to help them heal:
- Rest, physical inactivity. Stop doing the activity that seemed to bring on the symptoms until they subside. However, do keep moving the arm/elbow gently through a few range of motion exercises every day and general stretching exercises to prevent stiffness.
- Pain management. You may need some help with pain caused by inflammation in the joint. Over the counter anti-inflammatories can help short term. However, you might try some pure cherry juice or bromelain, as they are both excellent natural anti-inflammatories. Icing the elbow with a cold pack or ice cubes wrapped up in a cloth and held on the area can help decrease any swelling and inflammation as well. You might try some topical Sports Rub creams that contain capsaicin – a compound present in hot peppers – that can help alleviate pain.
When To See A Doctor
If you experience any of the above symptoms for a prolonged period of time, and the recommendations listed here do not help, you should see your doctor who can further diagnose what is going on with the elbow joint.
Your doctor may need to do x-rays, or an MRI, or even an arthroscopy – where a scope is inserted into the joint – to look for other causes for your pain. You may have developed a bone spur, fracture, sprain that stretches, or even tears a ligament around/in the joint, or even a pinched nerve which may need further repair. You may need physical therapy or an arm sling to keep your arm immobile for a while to help heal the joint and surrounding structures.
As I advise my patients, by all means get out there in the beautiful Spring weather and make the most of it being active and having fun. Regular exercise and activity can not only help you feel better all over but it can even brighten a low mood. However, just take a little joint precaution so you don’t wind up with elbow (or other) joint damage that can sideline you for weeks!
Mark Bromson, M.D.
Arthritis of the Elbow, http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/Patients/Health-Conditions/Arthritis-of-the-Elbow.aspx
Elbow Pain, http://www.medicinenet.com/elbow_pain/page2.htm
photo credit: tenniselbowtips.com