Pickleball fever is sweeping the nation as one of its fastest-growing sports. In Central Oregon, athletes of all ages are enamored with the physical, mental and social benefits of their beloved pickleball. However, when elbow pain flares up, the most effective long-term treatment is often ignored.

While gentler on the body than tennis, pickleball is not without risks. Lateral epicondylalgia, also known as tennis elbow or pickleball elbow, is a common overuse injury. While typically self-limiting, pickleball elbow can sideline your ability to play for many months. Plus, if recovery is not complete, there is a high risk of recurrence.

"Unfortunately, we rarely see patients in the early stages when it is easier to treat," said Mathew Henninger, PT, DPT, OCS at Step & Spine Physical Therapy. "We can help patients achieve a faster and more complete recovery when physical therapy is started early. It is a much longer recovery process when treatment is initiated after the injury has progressed."

When it initially develops, lateral elbow pain is felt only when playing pickleball. The most effective treatment includes rest, icing the elbow, NSAIDs, and special stretches and strengthening exercises. However, many reach for a tennis elbow strap instead. Elbow straps are only good for symptom relief but do not fix the problem. Without proper treatment, tennis elbow can evolve into a degenerative disorder where tendons begin breaking down and become weakened.

In order to heal, the body must be in an inflammatory phase, which is the phase that occurs right after an injury. Ignoring pain bypasses this vital stage of recovery and pushes you into the danger zone of degeneration.

Eccentric exercises are recommended to promote healing, as they have been shown in studies to resolve pain faster. These exercises stress the tendon in a way that improves circulation so the injury can heal.

If you find yourself with pickleball elbow experts agree that you should take two weeks off of playing to rest. You should also ice your elbow and modify your activities to avoid aggravating it. After two weeks you can slowly integrate normal activities into your day if it is not painful. If the pain is not resolved in four weeks, it is time to see a physical therapist. Sometimes other issues may be preventing your recovery.

"As with any tendon-related injury, it is critical to see someone sooner rather than later," said Henninger. "If you want to get back to your activity, don't let acute pain become chronic."