Health Matters: Surviving Tennis Elbow

Like most medical writers, I've been drawn over the years to the intense stuff—brain surgery, emergency medicine, open-heart surgery, clinical oncology. I like stories about bloody, complicated matters of life and death, with brilliant doctors trying to solve maddening mysteries, and courageous patients facing long odds with optimism and hope. Medicine is inherently dramatic, I say, when speaking to young journalists. And it is, for sure. But what I'm most interested in these days is my right elbow, which hurts like hell.

By now, my family and most of my friends and colleagues are familiar with my case. How could they not be? I've been rubbing my arm and complaining about the constant pain (sometimes sharp, like a hot needle, sometimes just a dull ache) ever since I shoveled my driveway after a mid-December snowstorm. Unfortunately, it's become clear that the problem has outlasted all available reserves of sympathy and interest. Nobody, not even my wife, wants to hear about it anymore.

So now I'm telling you, America, because I know that millions of you out there understand exactly what I'm going through. The garden-variety aches and pains we deal with—not serious enough for surgery, but serious enough to wake us up at night and make us feel vaguely grumpy all day (yes, it hurts to type this)—amount to an ongoing epidemic of discomfort and what could even be called misery. My stupid elbow affects my quality of life, just like your stupid knee or your stupid shoulder affects yours. And it doesn't help that the treatment options for these things are so limited. My doctor told me to rest it, ice it and take anti-inflammatory meds. If it gets worse, she said, I can get a corticosteroid injection (though I think I'll try acupuncture first). She also said her own elbow soreness comes and goes.

I didn't appreciate the size of the aches-and-pains situation until I spent those two hours shoveling snow and ended up with a case of lateral epicondylitis, a.k.a. tendinitis, a.k.a. tennis elbow, a.k.a. snow-shovel elbow. I used to ignore the moans and groans of people in pain just the way most people ignore my moans and groans. Now, jammed into a rush-hour subway car each morning, I wonder how many of my fellow passengers are, like me, focusing most of their attention on some aching body part.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 46 million Americans (22 percent of adults) have some form of arthritis. That's a whole lot of joint pain, and the figure doesn't include lots of folks like me with common overuse injuries. Part of the problem, for many of us, is age. I asked Dr. E. Anthony Rankin, president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the difference between my achy 57-year-old elbow and my pain-free 27-year-old elbow. "It's 30 years' difference," he said. "You can apply that to any material you've got around, including the chair you're sitting on. Over a period of time it's going to wear, and your body does the same." After comparing me to old office furniture, Rankin said staying active and maintaining a healthy weight (not to mention stretching before reaching for the snow shovel) can help prevent the sort of injury I incurred.

Naturally, I feel more than a little guilty complaining about such a minor health problem when so many people in this world have to deal with genuine life-threatening illnesses. But I can't help it: my damned elbow is killing me. All I can hope to do, I guess, is avoid the sump hole of self-pity. So know this, America: when I am sitting on my couch tonight, ice pack strapped to my elbow, ibuprofen coursing through my bloodstream, registering each radiating twinge with a small, non-attention-getting wince, I will be thinking of more than just my own inflamed tendon. As a certain former president might say, I feel your pain.