[This piece was written by Nancy J. Sterantino, supervisor of St. Peter’s Physical Therapy and Fitness.]
Talk to any professional who uses their hands for a living and you’ll eventually hear a story about hand fatigue or a serious hand injury. Listen a little longer and those same people all likely have a story about when they were sidelined by elbow pain.
Professions at high risk for elbow injury include many that have typically been populated by men, but where women are equally at risk. In fact, according to a recent report from The Cleveland Clinic in Medical News Today, men between the ages of 30 and 50 are at highest risk. The danger comes from using repetitive and twisting hand motions, such as those found in auto repair, house painting, landscaping, meat cutting, computer technology, and nursing. In more recent years, our daily use of computers and smartphones has compounded the risk.
Medically known as lateral or medial epicondylitis, elbow injuries are generally born of overuse. The muscles and tendons of the forearm, which make it possible to move our hand and wrist, can develop micro tears with overuse. Inflammation and pain follow, making it difficult to use the hand, wrist and arm.
Your primary care doctor can usually diagnose a simple case of epicondylitis with a history and physical exam. In some cases, your doctor may order an X-ray, an electromyogram (EMG) or an MRI if she wants to rule out other possible causes of pain and weakness in your wrist and hand.
There’s no quick cure for epicondylitis and treatment involves a number of strategies including:
Rest is the first and most important step. This may require several weeks to be effective. If your injury is the result of stress in the workplace, as is most often the case, prolonged rest may be difficult. It’s important to work with your employer to change your work assignment until your elbow heals and to re-design either your work space or the motions you used that caused the problem.
Non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen (Aleve) can help relieve the pain as well as reduce swelling and inflammation. A steroid injection may be used for temporary pain relief.
Ice packs used three or four times a day for 15 minutes each time can help reduce swelling.
A splint, available from most drug stores, can help relieve stress on the elbow and take pressure off the muscles and tendons.
A physical or occupational therapist can prescribe specific stretching and strengthening exercises to help decrease pain, as well as provide manual therapies such as tissue mobilization and kinesiotaping. Your therapist may also review your body mechanics, suggesting approaches and modifications to your movements and the tools you use that, together, can decrease strain on your body.
If you notice pain in your hand, wrist or forearm with twisting or gripping motions, don’t ignore it. Rest your arm and make changes in your tools or technique to address the problem and head off even more painful and frustrating symptoms down the road.
St. Peter’s Physical Therapy & Fitness offers a full range of outpatient physical and occupational therapy services, at 1240 New Scotland Road, Slingerlands, NY (approximately three miles from St. Peter’s Hospital). Our Certified Hand Therapist has more than 30 years of experience.
St. Peter’s Health Partners Patient Therapies has a variety of outpatient occupational therapists at locations throughout the Capital District, accepting all insurances and providing quality one-on-one treatment. For information, please call 518-475-1818.