If you suffer elbow pain when carrying things, especially in just one elbow, there is a likely specific cause of this.
“Elbow pain from carrying things is often due to lateral epicondylitis, otherwise known as tennis elbow,” says John-Paul H. Rue, MD, orthopedic sports medicine surgeon with Orthopedics and Joint Replacement at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD.
“The pain results from overuse and micro-tears of the tendons of the forearm muscles at their insertions on the bone at the elbow.”
What about Golfer’s elbow?
“Yes, golfer’s elbow can definitely cause pain when carrying things, especially if that involves forceful gripping,” says Dr. Rue.
“Tennis elbow is about five times more common than golfer’s elbow, so from a percentage standpoint, most elbow pain from lifting is due to tennis elbow.”
Golfer’s elbow is known as medial epicondylitis. You need not be a tennis player or golfer to develop these conditions.
Lateral refers to on the outside, and medial refers to inner or on the inside.
I once had pain in the left elbow when I carried things—as long as my hand was gripping the object I was carrying.
I then discovered I could carry the heaviest items if my forearm were placed beneath the object, and my hand was not holding onto it — such as picking up a table with my left hand palm-up and not gripping underneath it, but forearm supporting the weight.
Or, I could carry any weight of shopping sacks — as long as the handle of the sack was looped around my forearm, sparing my hand from holding on (gripping).
So it wasn’t the bending of the elbow that was causing pain; it was the gripping action of my hand (innervating the medial epicondyle tendon), even if my arm was straight.
The medical epicondyle controls most of the hand finger grip! When you carry things, at least items of weight, often you are applying a grip.
This will aggravate the inflammation of the medial epicondyle.
What about the lateral epicondyle? As Dr. Rue says, this too can cause the discomfort, but not because you’re gripping anything.
In the case of the lateral situation, if the forearm is angled a certain way, there will be pain.
Solution to Elbow Pain When Carrying Things
You first need a diagnosis. A sports medicine doctor is the physician of choice for something like this.
Once you’re diagnosed, you will then likely be assigned to a physical therapy program.
It’s pretty hard to go through life avoiding carrying things, especially if the pain is brought on by items that don’t even weigh that much.
Tendons take a very long time to heal. Do not expect a cure after only a month of therapy, though noticeable relief may occur after a fairly short time in cases where the discomfort is only mild.
Athletes will have higher standards for a complete resolution of symptoms.
Prevention of Elbow Pain
To prevent your elbows from hurting when you do the necessary carrying and lifting of day-to-day activities, you should do the following exercises:
Hand grips—these little devices are sold in the sports departments of retailers and online. Use these tools while watching TV or while waiting at traffic stops.
Chest press motions. These can be done with dumbbells, a barbell, equipment or tension bands. You can also build up strength via pushups.
Avoidance of repetitive stress to the forearms, though this will be difficult if you’re a tennis player.
Icing and rest are not enough, especially if your lifestyle calls for frequent carrying of things.
Do not assume elbow pain will go away on its own. Discomfort in a joint is not the same as a strained muscle that goes away after only a few days’ rest.
Dr. Rue specializes in prevention and treatment of sports and exercise injuries. His primary focuses are knee, shoulder and elbow injuries including ACL and cartilage injuries, rotator cuff injuries and overuse tendonitis.
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health.