This is a great question since Tennis Elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is one of the most common injuries seen in sports. Some people call it an irritation of the muscles and tendons in the forearm. The main symptom is pain — especially when cocking the wrist back or lifting objects. Tension around the elbow along with weakness in the arms and hands are usually seen as well. The explanation for this is inflammation thought to be caused by micro-tears in the tendon and muscle tissue. This happens in a lot of conditions, including plantar fasciitis and many repetitive stress injuries.
This is definitely a problem for any sport that involves using the arms. In my clinic I’ve seen many early stage cases that involve only the warning symptoms of stiffness, some minor weakness, and an uncomfortable awareness of the elbow and forearm. In more severe cases, patients come in wearing braces and often have already had cortisone shots and spent time in physical therapy, but are still experiencing pain, especially after any exercise.
So, what can acupuncture do for this? Reduce pain, relieve inflammation, encourage blood circulation and speed healing. The results are particularly noticeable in a situation like this involving damaged tendons where there is limited blood circulation.
Dr. Peter Dorsher, an MD with acupuncture training, presented a great study on this at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in 2001. He treated 22 patients and found that the symptoms were relieved after 4 treatments. Eight and half months later, 77% still had no symptoms and had regained full use of their arms. He noted that some of these patients had had symptoms for months and tried many different therapies before acupuncture without success.
The techniques use for treatment include needles around the affected area, microcurrent electric stimulation, moxa (the application of heat), cupping (suction to bring stagnant blood out of the area), and therapeutic exercise.
Figuring out why the irritation occurred in the first place is also very important. Preventing injury and preventing RE-injury is better than treatment. I always ask patients WHY this is happening NOW. Have they changed their technique or experienced general changes in health? Higher stress in other areas of your life can lead to chronic muscle tension which makes the tendons more vulnerable to tearing. We also look at the condition of the Blood and Liver Qi. Blood (particularly Liver Blood) bathes and nourishes the muscles and tendons. If the Blood and Qi (energy) become blocked, you are more vulnerable to stress damage.