If you or someone you know has had tennis elbow, you know how painful this problem can be.
Tennis elbow or elbow tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendons in the elbow, which you can get from doing repetitive motions and excessive use of the muscles in the forearm. It affects not only tennis players but also painters, butchers, and yes, rowers.
I believe doctors are now calling this computer elbow or rowers elbow, but you can also get it from doing lots of things, not just playing tennis, rowing, or using the computer. It can cause an astonishing amount of pain, and if the condition gets worse, you may find yourself unable to do the simplest things, like brushing your hair or signing your name!
If you have tennis elbow now, you probably want to know how you can stop the pain and let the tendons heal.
I can tell you from personal experience that tennis elbow hurts like crazy, and it is zero fun. Since I’ve had it, I can also tell you how to stop the pain and prevent it from happening to you (or prevent it from happening again because this annoying problem loves to make a big comeback!)
Let me start off by telling you that I am not a doctor or a physical therapist. This should not be considered medical advice. Always speak with your medical professional regarding treatment.
What Is Rowers Elbow?
The medical term for rowers elbow or tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis. It’s been called tennis elbow for decades, but it can also be called golfers elbow, computer elbow, and rowers elbow. Basically, it’s tendonitis in the elbow, short and sweet.
Repetitive motion activities, such as swinging a tennis racket or pulling back on the rowing machine handle, can cause inflammation of the tendon in the elbow and degeneration of the forearm muscles.
The extensor tendon is what allows you to pull your arm forward and back, as well as extend your hand and fingers.
Some rowers also experience pain in the wrist tendons at the same time.
When inflammation reaches a certain level, you will experience a dull, burning pain or, more commonly, a very sharp, stabbing pain on the outer portion of the elbow joint.
Let me tell you, it honestly feels as though someone is stabbing you with a knife right in the outer portion of the joint (called the lateral elbow). It sounds minor, but this type of elbow pain can be really intense!
One problem here is that typical over-the-counter pain relievers do next to nothing to stop this type of elbow pain.
Can Rowing Cause Tendonitis?
While overuse (meaning rowing to excess) can cause you to develop tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis, in the majority of cases, it’s poor rowing technique that causes this condition.
When you are doing the drive, push back with your legs just short of locking the knees. Keep your back straight and in a neutral position, with your arms fully extended.
During the finish stroke, you will now bend back to about the 1 or 2 o’clock position. Now you can bend your elbows and pull back on the handle. Don’t let your elbows stick out to the sides like a chicken wing! Many novice rowers do this, and it not only looks funny but can cause them to develop lateral epicondylitis. Keep your elbows close to your rib cage as you pull.
The same is true during the recovery. Don’t allow your elbows to “wing” out to the sides. Keep them close to your body as your hands pass back over your knees.
If you fail to learn how to do the rowing strokes properly, you may never be free from elbow pain.
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Can You Workout With Tennis Elbow or Elbow Pain?
If working out on a rowing machine causes you elbow pain, stop immediately and seek medical attention.
The bad news here is that you probably need to rest that elbow for about 6 weeks.
I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear, and if your doctor tells you something otherwise, listen to your doctor’s advice.
Chances are that your doctor will tell you to stop rowing and put you into physical therapy as well.
Since some cases of tennis elbow are overuse injuries, the only way to stop this problem is to refrain from using your rowing machine or whatever it is that is causing your discomfort.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t do other types of cardio exercise. You can jump on the treadmill, stair climber, trampoline, or whatever you like, as long as you aren’t doing whatever is the source of your pain.
What Activities Cause Tennis Elbow?
While simply rowing can cause you to develop tennis elbow, believe it or not, lateral epicondylitis is one of the most common complaints among many types of people and professions, not just rowers.
Typing on a computer without proper support is how I ended up with my issue.
Other issues/professions that can cause this injury includes:
- Cashiers (sliding objects over the scanner)
- Sports such as tennis and golf
- Sewing by hand
- Musicians (playing the guitar or violin)
These are just a few examples of activities that can lead to tennis elbow since all of the above cause overuse injury.
What Exercises Cause Elbow Tendonitis?
You may be surprised to learn that many of the common exercises you see people doing at the gym can lead to pain in the extensor tendons.
Some exercises to avoid would include:
- Any wrist exercises, such as using dumbbells, bicep curls, or arm extensions
- Chin-ups, push-ups, or bench presses
- Any exercise that requires you to keep your arms straight and your elbows fully extended
- Any repetitive lifting or any motion where you repeat the same motion over and over again
Your doctor or physical therapist will tell you more about the dos and don’ts, but if you can remember to avoid using your arms to anything more than the basics (brushing your teeth, washing your body, feeding yourself), then you are one step ahead of the game.
How to Avoid Tennis Elbow
Once the tendon of your elbow has healed and the inflammation has decreased, there are steps you can take to avoid this painful condition.
- Strengthen the forearms and wrists
- Stretch the arms and wrists regularly throughout the day
- Always warm-up before exercising
- Learn the proper rowing technique
- Add padding to enlarge handles so you don’t need to grip as tightly
- Wear gloves for a better grip so you don’t need to hold on tight
- Avoid repetitive motions if at all possible
- Take frequent breaks to stretch and rest your arm muscles
- Avoid working with a bent wrist. Keep the wrist straight. There are special gloves you can buy that force the wrist to maintain a neutral position.
- If you work at home, be sure that your computer station is ergonomically friendly
Keep in mind that if you are experiencing pain, something is wrong, and you should stop doing whatever it is that you’re doing and consult with a medical professional.
Does Tennis Elbow Ever Go Away?
Yes, it does.
It may feel as though it is taking the tendon and arm muscles forever to heal themselves. The truth is that if you seek out physical therapy and let the arm rest, this condition will go away.
The problem is that many people start to feel better after two weeks, so they go right back to what caused their injury. I even know someone who caused so much damage to the tendon that they required surgery.
While surgery is not common, it is a very real possibility for those who choose to ignore the signals their body is sending them.
The Bottom Line
You can avoid tendonitis if you learn to do the rowing strokes properly and stretch your arm muscles every day.
You can heal from tendonitis if you give the arm time to rest. Physical therapy can be a tremendous help and can shorten the amount of time needed for the arm to heal.
On the other hand, you can ignore all of the above but expect to suffer from an even more painful surgery – the choice is yours.
Take care of your body and it will give you a lifetime of good service. Happy rowing!
Written by Petra Amara – RowingCrazy.com
CEO & Founder of RowingCrazy, National Rower, Coxswain Womens Eight Team, Rowing Coach & Writer
Petra is a Mother of two and owner of Rowingcrazy.com. Petra lives and breathes rowing, she also has a passion for writing which lead her to start RowingCrazy.com to share her rowing experience and expertise with others.