Have you ever accidently bumped your elbow into something on just that right spot? It hurts, but makes you laugh at the same time.
There is nothing to do but endure that hysterically painful 10 seconds until it subsides, all while your friends make smart comments about the funny bone. I never thought of the elbow joint as a particularly humerus area. Now the humorous — that is a funny bone if ever there was one.
The elbow is a complex joint. It is similar to your knee, but with more rotation at the joint. This rotation helps us do things such as eat and style our hair. There are many different muscles in the forearm that make it possible to simply rotate your hands from a palms-down to a palms-up position.
When it comes to elbow fitness, there are a few things you can do at home to facilitate healthy joints. Having said that, I have one rule when it comes to joints: “When in doubt, get it checked out.” You can search the Internet for days and ask every gym buddy and trainer you know about your “issue,” but there is no substitute for the professional opinion of a doctor. Everyone else can just say what they “think” is amiss, but doctors can say they “know” what is wrong.
Sadly, if you’re sitting in the doctor’s office holding your elbow, it probably means that your aliment has gotten a little out of hand. Most people don’t schedule the appointment, pay the co-pay, fill out the forms (again), and sit for the better part of an afternoon waiting on a doctor, all for something that “twinges” every now and then.
Let’s explore some low-tech, high-return things you can do at home as pre-hab. As a trainer, if an athlete has an issue with some kind of movement, I look at the muscles involved with the movement they are having trouble with. In the case of the elbow, that would be everything above and below the joint.
Pressing and holding load in an overhead position requires the elbow to have full range of motion. The common hang-up is with the biceps and/or triceps. They could be either weak or tight. If they are weak, exercise can help condition them. Use the tempo illustrated in today’s column with exercises for the arm muscles. It allows the tendons to get plenty of nutrient rich blood flow, which both helps recovery and performance. You may notice that you need to decrease the weight for these tempo sets by as much as half your regular load. If full extension is the problem, use the SMR technique described on the biceps.
Holding a tight grip on a club, bat or racket uses the forearm muscles. Repetitive movements can cause these muscles to tighten up. At first they may feel fatigued early in the workout. As the tightness progresses, they may burn during and after exercise and may be accompanied by decreased strength. When they become super wound up to the point of acute pain and really start to decrease performance, they get fancy names such as “tennis elbow” (forearm extensors), “golfer’s elbow” (forearm flexors) or some kind of “-itis.”
How do tight muscles make my elbow hurt? When a muscle gets tight most of the slack is knotted up and the muscle pulls at its attachment site, the elbow. It can also be accompanied by inflammation. No wonder it’s painful. Muscles are designed to stretch much more than their tendons and attachments.
The trick is getting the muscles to relax and return to their natural state. This decreases strain on the tendons as well. For that I turn to self-myofascial release, or SMR. SMR uses pressure to help relax tight muscles. (See my other columns on SMR at www.lvrj.com/trainer.) For large muscles such as hamstrings and quads, we use the foam rollers. For smaller muscles such as forearm muscles, biceps and triceps, I prefer a golf ball. Yes, a golf ball. It allows for enough variable pressure to dig into knots without causing pain to make you jump through the roof.
When using SMR, remember the pain scale. One is very little pain and 10 is extreme pain. Muscles like to relax with anything below a 7 or 8. Also remember my first rule, when in doubt, get it checked out.
Chris Huth is a Las Vegas trainer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.