By Dr. Pamela Fernandes | 25 January 2021
Tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis is a condition that occurs when the tendons of the elbow experience inflammation due to overuse. In many martial arts, the repetitive arm moves cause microtears in the forearm muscles and tendons.
And so a martial artist might find yourself developing pain and tenderness even though you only practice armchair tennis when a Grand Slam is on. Besides, elbow injuries are gruesome. Ask Joe Pyfer who’s video went viral when his elbow was dislocated during a fight that even made Dana White squirm. His ligaments were probably weakened by repeated stress.
How Does Tennis Elbow Develop?
In martial arts, repetitive snap punching with a full fist rotation, locking the elbow on the punch causes hyperextension especially if done without bending elbows. The elbow joint is a joint made up of three bones, the humerus, the radius, and the ulna. There are bony protrusions at the bottom of the humerus called epicondyles, where several muscles of the forearm originate.
On the outside of the elbow is the lateral epicondyle. When forearm tendons or extensors that extend the wrist and fingers develop tears and get inflamed due to repeated wear, pain ensues. The tendon usually affected in the tennis elbow is the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis (ECRB). Tennis elbow can cause chronic pain if left untreated.
How To Prevent Tennis Elbow?
You must try to prevent tennis elbow especially since the only way to become a good martial artist is by repetition. Here are some of the ways that you can prevent tennis elbow.
Protect Your Elbows
You don’t have to damage your elbows while sparring or at a competition. Instead of busting your elbow and staying out of action for weeks, you can use an elbow pad or guard to protect your elbows.
They provide an extra layer between you and direct strikes or falls. What are they made of?
Elbow pads and elbow guards are made of a combination of wrap or sleeve material with protective inserts. Some guards have a hard plastic insert covering the joint. Some elbow guards have softer foam pads.
The issue with elbow pads/guards is that they often shift as you spar. Tighter guards are uncomfortable but they stay in place. Softer foam is not as protective but is more comfortable. Since they are not as bulky, they stay in place. There are more sophisticated brands that possess high impact padding which provides better shock absorption.
Strengthening & Stretching Exercise
To reduce the stress and wear on the elbow, you must strengthen the grip muscles, shoulders, and forearm muscles. As you build up muscles, your punches distribute force evenly. You can also add towel and rope grip exercises. Bend your elbow while punching. Try not to hyperextend by punching into the air.
Always, practice with a partner or a bag and not the air. Stretch your wrist muscles before your spar to reduce the strain.
Practice simple wrist exercises by holding your arm straight out in front of you. Place the palm face-up, and bend your fingers back towards you for 15 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times. Do a reverse stretch with the palm face down.
Sport Specific Measures
The most important step in all martial arts is to not over train. While occasionally it might be good to test your limits, don’t make this a habit. Overuse of the muscles and tendons can lead to injury.
Muay Thai & MMA
In full rules” Muay Thai and MMA, your elbows are important while blocking kicks with your arms. A kick can catch your elbow and cause it to hurt for the next few days. Direct strikes can severely damage cartilage and repeated direct strikes to the same joint will eventually lead to arthritis.
Use soft elbow pads as you practice with a training partner. This will prevent damage from direct strikes. Avoid over-enthusiastic feints.
Falls to the Mat in BJJ, Aikido, Judo
The original intent of Ikkyo in Aikido was to break the elbow joint of the enemy. Anyone who has been involved in an armbar knows only too well the pain when you refuse to tap out. That’s the ligaments in the elbow undergoing stretch and then damage.
Falls to the mat too can dislocate, strain/sprain, and damage the elbow. Throw downs are tricky as they are unexpected and so you are unprepared for impact. Practice breakfalls regularly until it becomes second nature. This helps when the inevitable toss to the mat occurs you can protect your elbow. Train your body to respond differently instead of outstretching your arms to break your fall.
For those who are just experiencing tennis elbow symptoms or having inflammation, supplements that reduce the chronic inflammation can be helpful.
One common supplement is the combination of turmeric with extra curcumin. Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, which is a great natural anti-inflammatory. A good option is extra strength Paragon Curcumin Turmeric, it supports joint, and heart health as well as provides muscle pain relief. It is non-GMO, gluten-free and is 95% Certified Curcuminoid.
Take A Break
Take frequent breaks between your sparring sessions. This will reduce the strain on the tendons and muscles. So the development of microtears is less. John Cena developed an elbow injury over repeated use and grueling physical strain night after night.
Parts of his bone were floating about the elbow joint causing severe pain. Rehabilitate any elbow injuries by including eccentric, concentric exercise and plyometric training. These should be followed by combat-specific drills, agility training, and bracing as appropriate.
Elbow Grease to Fight With Ease
For many martial artists, the elbows are very important for various throws, punches, moves, and maneuvers. Some will require elbow grease and others, not so much. While you want to train hard you also want to stay injury-free to maintain the longevity of your training career. Protect your elbows and prevent tennis elbow. Tell us if you have some practical tips for preventing tennis elbow.