Elbows have been the hardest joint in my body to clean out for several reasons:
1. I type a lot and so the elbows remain stationary in an unnatural position for long periods of time. Typing has always worked against my elbow healing plans.
2. It's counterintuitive to move them when they hurt and the muscles tighten around them in anticipation of pain/prevention of movement (typical of all inflamed joints)
3. Elbows are super complex. According to the surgeon who operated on my left elbow he said they are the most complex joint in the body by far.
4. It's hard to get a cortisone shot to 'stick' in the joint because of the elbow complexity and the number of nerves to avoid when placing the needle
5. Elbows are so easily irritated. They can be easily stirred up by
- Sleeping on an arm the wrong way, or even having it twisted a little during naps
- Loading them heavily with groceries at the store
- Trying to open a heavy door that is too close to the body (not enough leverage at the joint)
The best exercises
My sequence for the elbows are below. Each need to be tested carefully, but each of these at some point have been far more beneficial than detrimental. I don't do them all at the same time, I 'graze' from this list when I feel like doing some elbow-helping movements.
1. Arm pumps - My #1 best elbow pain relief exercise. It looks a bit odd, but it's golden. Lean forward by hinging at the lower back until your back is horizontal with arms dangling towards the floor. Pump the arms back and forth as if you are punching towards the ground. Five hundred of these a day should do the trick in getting results, and it only takes a few minutes do a few hundred at a time. * Start all exercises for the arms with 200 arm pumps first as a warm up. *
2. Swinging arms on long walks - Go for a long walk and consciously release the tension in the elbows so that the weight of the forearm and hand pull down through the elbow joint as they swing back and forth. This may feel uncomfortable at first, since there may be some clicking/grinding/squishing or other uncomfortable feeling in the elbow/s. However, the natural movement for the arm is to swing loosely when walking - and for us to walk a lot, thus lots of swinging - so we should try encouraging this
3. Chest grabs - Open palms right over the location of the chest/breast and squeeze the elbows behind you to their maximum range. Hold for 10 seconds at a time
4. Tricep stretches - place elbow high in the air and let forearm hang behind neck. Squeeze elbow by flexing into it (no need to use other arm). Hold for 10 seconds at a time
5. Arms straight up, Bikram grip - Clasp hands together but release the index finger so you have only index fingers pointing straight out. Extent arms above the head and squeeze at the triceps and elbows to try and straighten arms. Hold for 10 seconds.
6. Chest machine with squeeze - At the gym, go to a machine for chest exercises where you press your arms away from the body at chest height (use machine, not free weights for safety). With a light weight, use the machine as normal and squeeze the elbows and hold at the furthermost position from your body before the next repetition.
7. Praise the Lord - Arms out to the side, palms facing up, drop your head back and stretch arms out wide, squeeze at the triceps and elbows and face looking at the sky. Praise the Lord that I have tools to help myself!
8. Walk like a Zombie - Arms out in front of the body, palms face down, squeeze triceps tight. If your arms are shaking a little (check fingertips) then your elbows are insufficiently stable. Repeat all of the above to establish more stability.
9. Swing arms over the head - As though you are going to do a star jump, but keep feet planted on floor. Swing arms out to the side at the same time and then touch them together at the top with open palms. Concentrate on flexing the triceps at all times throughout this exercise.
10. Cable Punches
Bikram yoga is excellent for the elbows and is hugely recommended. However, I did find that only doing Bikram was not quite enough. It you go 5 times a week then it is enough to provide maintenance and slow improvements. If you go 3 times a week the elbows will still probably struggle to improve. So based on the frequency of Bikram you may still need to do the exercises above to reverse the elbow severity.
Warning - I found that on the Salabhasana (Locust Pose) I was always better off putting my arms face down beside my body with palms open, rather than putting them under my body with my body weight on them. This will come down to how much inflammation is still in the joint, and how your elbow is affected. For me, I still do the posture with arms beside my body since the right elbow complains the next day whenever I do it under the body, due to the way it's rotated.
When my left elbow was inflamed I rested it often. This quickly led to agony and eventual surgery. With the right elbow I was much smarter, and I exercised it a lot using multiple ways as I've described above and that elbow had an infinitely better outcome and never needed surgery. For me, the elbows still love getting lots of challenging exercise to drive blood flow and to keep the integrity of the connective soft tissue strong.