Expert Advice on Common Diseases
Expert Advice-Treatment of Tennis Elbow in Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM):
Acupuncture for Tennis
Many of us have experienced a painful elbow
from time to time after a golf game, raking the lawn, or a long session
on the computer. Usually it clears up after a few daysí rest.
But for a lot of people, the pain doesnít go away, and they eventually
have to go in for treatment. Elbow pain which is due to inflammation
of the tendons that attach the lower arm bones to the upper arm is usually
called "tennis elbow." It can also be called tendonitis of the elbow,
or sometimes "golf elbow."
In this country, doctors recommend an approach
that starts with basic care like resting the elbow, avoiding overuse, and
wearing a brace. Next, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory drugs,
or pain killers are tried. Finally, steroid injections (cortisone
shots) may be used in an effort to reduce the inflammation.
In China, acupuncture is the first choice
of doctors and their patients in the treatment of tennis elbow. More
radical approaches like surgery or steroid injections are a last resort.
In my practice, I often see people who have already tried everything that
Western medicine has to offer, including steroid injections, and who still
suffer with debilitating pain. One of my patients, Mike, is a good
example of this. He had been a tennis coach for fifteen years, and
loved his job, but for the last year he had been experiencing severe elbow
pain. He tried three steroid injections with no relief. Now
he was forced to consider the possibility of giving up tennis for good.
Fortunately, acupuncture worked very well for Mike. We started with
two treatments a week, and after five weeks, his pain had decreased significantly.
Normally, I ask patients to rest their elbow during treatment, but Mike
had to continue giving tennis lessons and classes during this time.
Even so, he improved to the point where he could continue with the work
that he loved.
The effectiveness of acupuncture in treating
tennis elbow was the subject of a study done in Sweden by Dr. Gunilla Brattberg.
She found that patients treated with acupuncture became much better, or
even completely free of pain. None of them got worse or had any side
effects from acupuncture treatment. Dr. Brattberg noted that acupuncture
is a more time-consuming treatment modality than steroid injection, but
while there may be dramatic improvement using steroids, there can also
be a worsening of symptoms with steroids. Most acupuncture practitioners
find that patients who have had steroid injections are slower to respond
to acupuncture treatments than patients who have not been injected.
What kind of treatment can you expect at an
acupuncture clinic? Exact treatment will vary somewhat from person
to person, but most people begin with two acupuncture treatments a week
for a few weeks, decreasing the frequency of treatment as the condition
improves. The practitioner may also use electrical stimulation, heat
lamp, and herbal patches to speed up the healing. Because tennis
elbow is the inflammation of a tendon, it usually takes longer to heal
than an inflamed muscle would, but you should notice at least some improvement
after four or five treatments.
One of my patients asked me an interesting
question recently. Samantha is a flight attendant, and has developed
severe tennis elbow pain as a result of her job. She said, "Iím pretty
sure my elbow problem is from carrying a coffee pot around half the day
and lifting heavy luggage. But Iíve only been a flight attendant
for five years. Some of my co-workers have been lifting coffee pots
and luggage for twenty years, and theyíre fine. Is there something
wrong with me?"
It does seem like some people are more at
risk to develop this problem than others, even if two people are doing
the exact same job. Chinese medicine has a unique explanation for
this, based on the idea that most health problems are due to an internal
imbalance of a fundamental substance of the body, like Chi, Yin, or Yang.
In Chinese medicine theory, the Liver controls the tendons. If there
is a deficiency of Liver Yin, tendons will not be moistened and nourished
enough, and the tendons will dry out and become inflamed. When an
acupuncture practitioner treats you, he or she will treat the underlying
imbalance as well as the symptoms of pain that you have. Like Mike,
Samantha responded to acupuncture very well, and has had no recurrent elbow
problems since then.