Tendonitis: Everything You Need to Know

Tendonitis is inflammation of the tendon, which is a thick rope-like cord that attaches a bone to a muscle. When injured, you’ll feel pain and tenderness at the site of the injury, around the joint. Here’s how to avoid tendonitis and when to see a doctor.
Elbow injury, tendonitis

We’ve all heard the phrase, “no pain, no gain,” but that’s definitely not advice to follow when it comes to aches and pains as you age. In fact, the pain may be a sign to take it easy on your muscles and tendons. Otherwise, you could be in the boat I’m in these days, facing tendonitis. And it’s not a very fun boat.

I got mine from a bad case of tennis elbow. Just as it sounds, my elbow was injured during a tennis match, going up against the back fence for a ball. A wise person would stop playing, but I wasn’t being very wise, so it was then further aggravated by playing through it. When later it hurt just to pick up a glass of water or while trying to write with a pen, I knew I had to get to the doctor. He explained that I needed to stop playing for a few months, which was not really an option for my stubborn self since I was part of a league, and this sport helped me stay fit without feeling like I was exercising.

So, he suggested some physical therapy to help, and I requested a cortisone shot. That was a mini-miracle, taking away the pain instantly for about a month. During that time, I played tennis again with no worries. Oh, how I wish it had lasted longer than a month. When the pain returned, it returned with a vengeance, making it difficult to even type, which, as a writer, I do for a living. It’s been months since then, and this pain is a nagging presence, so I want to be sure it doesn’t hit you the way it hit me. Keep reading and find out what tendonitis is, how it happens, and what you can do to be smarter than me.

What is it, and how common is it?

Ankle pain from tendonitis; joint pain

It turns out I’m far from alone in my tendonitis issues; it’s actually a fairly common problem. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says more than 70,000 people miss work each year because of it. It’s the inflammation of the tendon, which is a thick rope-like cord that attaches a bone to a muscle. When injured, you’ll feel pain and tenderness at the site of the injury, around the joint. It may be sudden and sharp or chronic, never really going away. You’ll feel it most where the muscle attaches to the bone.

It’s often described as a dull ache, especially when using the injured body part. It may be tender, and you may even see some mild swelling. And I’m sorry to say it, but it’s more common in adults over 40. The tendons can’t take as much stress as they age and also become less flexible. And, of course, it hits more than an elbow. It could appear in your shoulder, knee, heel, and wrist. You’ve likely heard it referred to as tennis elbow (outer part) or golfer’s elbow (inner part), swimmer’s shoulder (top of shoulder), jumper’s knee (front of the knee), Achilles tendonitis (back of the heel), or De Quervain’s disease (back of the wrist). No matter what you call it, know that it essentially equals pain.

What can you do about it?

Woman taking to doctor about wrist and joint pain

You should see a doctor as soon as you feel the pain because the sooner it’s treated, the sooner you can recover. It’s not likely you’ll need surgery, though it’s possible, depending on severity. In most cases, rest, ice, compression, and stretching will be enough. You have to avoid activities or movements that aggravate the injury (yes, I know how hard that is to hear when you love your sport like I do). Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory meds should help.

If the pain persists, physical therapy may improve flexibility and strength. A corticosteroid injection may also be an option, but remember, that just hides the pain, so don’t keep using that muscle just because you can’t feel the hurt. You’ll pay for it later. And you’ll also risk breaking down or tearing the tendon, which makes surgery more likely. 

How do I keep it from coming back?

Woman wearing brace on wrist

The key is to hold off on returning to your sport or activity that originally caused the pain until all of your symptoms are gone. Sometimes, you may even need to learn a new way of doing what caused the injury to begin with (i.e., I should avoid running into the fence and just accept that I’m losing the point). Beyond that, be sure you warm up and stretch before exercising in the future. Take breaks if you can, so you’re not doing the same repetitive motion for hours at a time. Wear a splint, if you can, or a brace to protect the part of your body prone to injury. And consider a different sport or hobby for a bit to give the overworked part of your body a break.

The key is to not be stubborn like I was and take a break when you know you’re hurt. See your doctor if the pain doesn’t go away, especially if it interferes with day-to-day life. You’ll want to learn how to move correctly once you are healed so you don’t end up in the same (miserable) boat in a few months or years. This is a boat best left on shore for good.

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