Q: I was recently diagnosed with tennis elbow, and I don’t even play tennis! What can I do?
A: First off, don’t be surprised—tennis often has nothing to do with tennis elbow. Any repetitive movement or strain on the forearm–from playing tennis to painting your house to typing–can trigger the condition, but poor circulation or inflammation are most likely the underlying causes.
Tennis elbow is a form of tendonitis that affects the fleshy region at the top of the forearm, the home of numerous muscles and tendons that control the hands and fingers. Both the large intestine and the “triple heater channels” of acupuncture, which regulate bowel function and metabolism, also run through this area. These channels are easily affected by the imbalance that Chinese medicine calls depressive liver heat, which causes inflammation and swelling of the surrounding tissues.
Acupuncture treats tendonitis very effectively, and I suggest you give it a try. In my own practice, I see people twice a week for three weeks, and then once weekly for another three weeks. This usually solves the problem (at least by 80 percent); any remaining pain can be treated less intensively over another month or so. I often give patients Chinese herbal topicals such as Plaster for Bruise–which you can find in Asian markets and health-food stores–to apply just before bedtime. These contain anti-inflammatory herbs such as mint and cinnamon. In the meantime, try these self-care remedies:
1. Take an anti-inflammatory supplement like ginger, turmeric, or myrrh–or even better, add the first two to your food.
2. Pick up a combination antioxidant remedy containing quercetin and bromelain to reduce swelling and pain, improve blood circulation, and neutralize metabolism waste products.
3. Add nutrient-rich berries and dark-green and orange vegetables to your diet–these foods help heal damaged tissue.
4. Steer clear of coffee, sugar, and alcohol, all of which can aggravate the liver and make things worse.
5. Rest your arm muscles. If you keep using your forearm, the condition might drag on for months.
6. Use a support wrap during the day but avoid tight bands that could immobilize the tendons.
7. Avoid feeling cold, which can impede blood flow to the tissues.
8. Begin strengthening and stretching exercises once the pain has eased. I recommend using a gyroscope, which you can find at any sporting goods store. This low-impact device lengthens every muscle in the forearm when used for just five minutes, twice a day. For two more simple exercises, see “Quick Exercises for Tendonitis” below.
9. Finally, nothing damages the liver more than stress. Ten minutes of some form of meditation each day can reduce stress’ negative effects.
Robert Keller practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Quick Exercises for Tendonitis
The more often you find time to fit these stretches into your workday, says California chiropractor Pali Cooper, the better your forearms will feel.
1. Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, feeling the three corners of your feet: the big-toe ball, the little-toe ball, and the heel’s center. This activates your core and helps you sit up straight. Now stretch your right arm out in front of you, palm facing the floor. Gently press down on the backside of your outstretched hand with your left hand until your right wrist bends and your palm faces you. Hold for several seconds, and breathe. Reverse arms and repeat.
2. Return to the starting position in No. 1. Gently grasp the palm side of your fingers, pulling them up toward you so the backside of your right hand faces you. Hold for several seconds, and breathe. Reverse arms and repeat.
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