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Should I Use Ice or Heat for Tennis Elbow Pain?

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT March 13, 2020 0 Comments

Elbow Ice Wrap

Ice or heat for tennis elbow is a great short-term way to treat the symptoms of lateral epicondylitis and allow you to participate fully in your normal day to day activities or sports. Find out how to use hot and cold therapy to treat pain, stiffness, and swelling that results from tennis elbow.

How Hot and Cold Therapy Helps

Tennis elbow is most often caused by repetitive motion that leads to tendon strain of the outside muscles of the elbow. These movements are often performed during sports like golf and tennis. Both hot and cold therapy provide unique benefits for tennis elbow to promote recovery with enhanced blood circulation. Another great benefit is decreasing reliance on over-the-counter pain medications that come with possible side effects, such as ibuprofen.  Keep reading to learn the distinct benefits of each.

Cold Therapy for Tennis Elbow

Addressing tennis elbow with ice is a great cost-efficient anti-inflammatory modality to address pain and swelling. 

How Does Cold Therapy Work?

The benefits of cold therapy are straight forward. Placing ice on an injured area constricts blood flow to the area and results in a therapeutic numbness for both pain and swelling relief. There are three stages of cold:  aching, burning, and fully cold. Make sure you get to the third stage before removing ice, but don’t keep it on too long after (15 to 20 minutes) to prevent frostbite and unnecessary discomfort. 

When to Use Cold Therapy

Cold therapy is a great option for addressing a new injury or aggravation of an injury. It can keep your symptoms of elbow pain and swelling under control to be able to better manage your daily activities. Apply it every few hours for up to 20 minutes immediately after an injury or with the onset of new pain. You can also use it preventively after a workout or elbow treatment that you know might cause some soreness later. 

Tennis Elbow Stretches

Ways to Apply Cold Therapy

There are several different options for applying cold therapy. These include the use of a cold pack, an ice massage with a frozen cup, a compression sleeve with ice, or an ice bath. No matter the option, make sure it is cold to provide adequate pain relief. Using a thick towel as a protective barrier or lukewarm bath will not create the therapeutic benefits of icing that you’re looking for.  

Heat Therapy for Tennis Elbow

Applying heat to a sore elbow can be a great option for the recovery process.

How Does Heat Therapy Work?

Applying heat to the elbow can help combat stiffness and pain associated with the injury. Heat in the area leads to dilation of the surrounding blood vessels, allowing more circulation for healing and promoting muscle relaxation.  

When to Use Heat Therapy

Heat is a superb way to increase relaxation before activities like massage, stretching, or exercise. Use it for 15 to 20 minutes throughout the day (ideally every few hours) as needed to decrease tension and improve the elbow’s ability to heal. 

Ways to Apply Heat Therapy

There are several different options for heat therapy. These include a heating pad, hot water bottle, whirlpool (or bath), hot shower, and infrared therapy applied directly to the forearm muscles. If you’re not sure which option is best for you, moist heat is the best because it can get the deepest into the muscles. If you seek physical therapy care, there are also other light therapy and ultrasound options for deeper heating. What temperature works best for you depends on your tolerance for heat and how much time you have. Adjust each option accordingly.  

When to Avoid Heat and Cold Therapy

Contraindications for cold or hot therapy include:

  • Poor sensation
  • Cold or heat sensitivity
  • High blood pressure
  • Vascular (circulatory) compromise
  • Unmanaged heart disease
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis 
  • Multiple Sclerosis (heat) 
  • Open wounds
  • Dermatitis
  • Deep vein thrombosis (blood clot)

Outside of these issues, typically alternating between hot and cold therapy is optimal for a tennis elbow injury. This is because overuse type injuries (tendinitis of elbow muscles in this case) respond well to both types of treatment.   

Taking Precautions with Ice or Heat Therapy

If you are unsure which options are right (or safe) for you, talk to a sports medicine doctor or your physical therapist. They can educate you and give you the best home treatment options. When using either heat or cold at home, always pay close attention to your skin and make sure you remove it immediately if you experience any sensations related to frostbite or burning. There is a big difference between discomfort and causing damage. Pairing hot and cold therapy with other recovery options will ultimately help maximize the healing process!

SHOP TENNIS ELBOW PRODUCTS

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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