Tennis elbow needs stretching, not stress

Q. I am a 55-year-old paramedic and spend a lot of time lifting people far larger than my 180-pound weight. Last year I developed bilateral epicondylitis — tennis elbow, to you. I went through physical therapy, was pronounced sound, went back to work, and now the tennis elbow is back. What exercises can I do to strengthen my arms and compensate for this chronic condition?

A. You may toss around medical jargon impressively, but it sounds as if your stretcher-lugging technique could use some work, says Tim McCullough, a physical therapist with Washington, D.C.’s Sport+ Spinal Physical Therapy. Building more arm strength won’t help, at least not while you’re on the job and continuing to repetitively stress the same muscle. “If you’re already ticking it off by overusing it, you may end up overwhelming it with exercise,” McCullough explains.

A better bet is to get someone to examine your lifting form.

McCullough has a hunch you’re always lifting with your palms facing down (when you should be lifting with palms up to reduce the strain on your tendons), and not taking full advantage of strength in the rest of your body. Just as tennis players must power up from their lower body to improve their swing, you need to think about lifting with your legs.

To manage the pain, try stretching. Here’s a classic: Stick one arm straight in front of you and hang the palm down so it’s facing your chest (“like you just dunked a basketball,” McCullough says). Then take the other hand and apply pressure to the back of the first hand. Hold for 30 seconds.

Talk to a professional about your other options, which include wearing an elbow brace or even surgery.

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