The combination of physical activity and kayaking can help to strengthen muscles in your upper body, but there are still risks involved. One particular risk of kayaking is the potential for developing tennis elbow. This makes it important for kayakers to check their technique, equipment, and paddling style carefully to avoid injury.
So, can kayaking cause tennis elbow? Yes—if your technique or equipment is not right for you. In this article, we will talk about the mechanics of kayaking that can lead to tennis elbow, how you can check your technique and equipment, and what to do if you get it.
Keep reading for deeper insight.
What Is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow (also known as lateral epicondylitis) is an overuse injury caused by repeated stress on the tendons in your forearm. With this condition, the outside part of your elbow becomes inflamed when tendons are overloaded. The pain associated with this medical issue is most noticeable during activities involving gripping or lifting objects.
Tennis elbow can affect many people at some point in their lives – especially those who over-exert their arm by gripping something tightly (such as a tennis racket) repeatedly through long periods without resting enough between sessions. People who engage in manual labor with their hands and wrists such as carpenters, landscapers, and gardeners tend to have higher risks of developing this condition.
Other activities that can lead to tennis elbow include:
- Over-gripping during kayaking (including but not limited to carving or sweeping strokes) – especially without a bent shaft paddle.
- Improper paddling technique (such as lack of upper arm rotation when using a single blade paddle which results in the outside edge of the top arm receiving most of the load).
- Using a paddle that is too heavy or too large for your strength level.
Pain levels vary depending on the severity of the condition; they can range from mildly annoying to extremely painful and debilitating, especially when trying to bend your wrist or grip something. Even though there is no cure for tennis elbow, symptoms typically go away within a few months when activity is reduced or stopped.
In many cases, surgery is not necessary—especially with milder forms of the condition. In fact, research shows that surgery usually does not help relieve symptoms in most people with tennis elbow. However, it may be an option if you have severe pain or if symptoms do not improve after the first few months.
Symptoms of Tennis Elbow
Symptoms usually include pain in your elbow when you flex, extend, bend, or rotate your wrist. Your arm may feel weak and stiff. You might also have numbness or tingling in your fingers, typically worse at night.
Is It Necessary to See Doctor for Treatment?
Generally, no—an elbow injury is something that most people can treat themselves at home, particularly if they avoid aggravating their condition with additional exercise or activity.
However, consider getting treatment from your doctor if:
- If you think your injury might be getting worse or not improving, though (for example the pain and swelling doesn’t start to decrease after about two weeks Your symptoms don’t improve with at-home treatments after several weeks.
- You have numbness or tingling in your arm, hand, or fingers that doesn’t go away.
- You have severe or sharp pain in your elbow when you move it.
Your doctor may want you to wear a cast or brace for several weeks, depending on how severe it is; however, these types of injuries usually heal well with conservative (non-surgical) care.
How to Diagnose Tennis Elbow
A doctor will test flexion and extension of the wrist by bending the wrist up toward the ceiling and then down toward the floor. If this causes pain, you have tennis elbow.
Doctors can also diagnose tennis elbow by testing your grip strength and looking to see if you have these symptoms:
- Pain at the outside of the elbow when gripping or lifting objects
- A lump on the outside of the elbow, usually about an inch below the crease in your arm
What Can Help with Tennis Elbow Pain?
Some treatments suggested by sports medicine doctors include:
- Applying ice and compression or heat 3-5 times per day for 10 minutes each session.
- Stretching your elbow 4-7 times per day using gentle, painless movements.
- Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory nonsteroidal medications.
- Use a brace or support, or wear an elbow strap for any activity that aggravates the pain.
- Pause any activity that causes pain. If you have been OK’ing, this might be tough advice to follow, but it important. In fact, taking four to six weeks off from any activity that causes pain is actually the recommended treatment for this condition.
- Doing physical therapy exercises, including stretches and strengthening moves, can speed up your recovery. Try using a rubber band or other light resistance tool to strengthen the muscles in your forearm—the stronger those muscles are, the better they will be able to cope with paddling stress.
- Stretching before you get into the water will help keep your elbow loose and prevent injury. Not stretching regularly before getting into the kayak may be what caused your problem.
- Avoid sitting hunched over at a desk all day long. Staying limber is key for minimizing injuries.
Paying attention to your body’s signals is a big part of preventing injury. Take a break when you need one. Sometimes, there might be a more serious condition going on, so it is important to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.
Is there Risk of Tennis Elbow being Chronic?
The good news is that once you relieve pressure on your tendon by resting it, you will likely recover completely within 5-6 months.
The bad news is that if you keep straining your tendon without giving it time to heal, you can end up with chronic tennis elbow.
This means that pain may come back even after treatment; however, this does not mean there’s no hope for recovery. Your doctor may recommend cortisone injections to relieve the pain and inflammation, but because this can weaken your tendon, it should be used cautiously.
Is it Okay to Kayak with an Elbow Injury?
Yes, you can go out kayaking with mild elbow injury, but you will want to take care of it as soon as possible. If the pain from tennis elbow is bad enough that it affects your kayaking technique or causes more problems, you will not be able to enjoy yourself on the water. If possible, switch to a straight-shafted paddle and use your other arm more often during paddling to prevent further injury.
Ensure to stay within your body’s limitations on the water, particularly if there is a lot of pushing and pulling required for bracing a boat in a current. Stick with calm waters until your elbow feels better, then add variety slowly to prevent a recurrence.
Avoid activities that cause pain during or after the activity. Doing so can help your body start to recover and heal itself.
Check this list of do’s and don’ts to minimize the risk of injuring yourself while kayaking:
- Do get training from an experienced instructor, so you learn how to get into a safe position on the water. Pay attention if your instructor tells you that something needs adjustment or improvement with your technique, equipment, or equipment setup.
- Do wear protective equipment like helmets, life jackets, paddling gloves, but do not become so focused on gear that you ignore basic technique or your paddling style.
- Do adjust the fit of your kayak if needed, particularly with wider-bodied boats. Also, pay attention to your shoes, which should be close fitting without cramping your toes excessively.
- Do pay attention to the fit of your paddle, which should be comfortable in your hands and match the techniques you use with it—a kayak roll requires a different paddle than a bracing stroke.
- Do stretch regularly before getting into the water—and avoid sitting hunched over at a desk all day long. Staying limber is key for minimizing injuries when you are on the water.
- Do strengthen your arm and shoulder muscles before getting into the water—the stronger those muscles are, the better they will be able to cope with paddling stress. If you’re not sure about good exercises and stretches for this, don’t hesitate to ask a strength training specialist or physiotherapist. This will help you avoid many potential problems, including tennis elbow caused by kayaking.
- Do not rush through form checks or safety drills; they are given for a reason, and it is best to take the time to make sure you are protected.
- Do not drop your head forward when you paddle—this can strain your neck muscles and lead to shoulder pain.
- Do not use an overly wide paddle, which increases leverage and puts stress on the wrong muscles.
- Do not let your elbows drift out from your sides excessively, but do not have them too close either; this position causes pain for many people.
- Do not let yourself run aground or scrape rocks. If this happens regularly with certain types of paddling, you may need to switch up kayaks or routes.
- Do not try to keep up with other kayakers who may be going faster than you are comfortable with, as this can lead to overuse injuries like tennis elbow.
How to Avoid Getting Tennis Elbow While Kayaking
- Keep Your Arm And Shoulder Muscles Strong
This can be done through simple weightlifting exercises that are available in any gym or by resistance band training, which you can do at home or on the water without fear of being made fun off for “pumping iron.”
Resistance bands are very portable and anyone who has them with them will have an instant workout tool whenever they want it. Also, do not forget to stretch out your arm before prolonged periods on the water.
- Use a Bent Shaft Paddle
If you do not have a bent shaft paddle, get one. It takes the strain off your elbow and will reduce pain significantly if not completely.
- Stay in the Paddler’s Box
When kayaking, you should always try to keep within the boundaries of the box. This ensures that your elbows are almost straight, which reduces any chance of hitting Paddler’s Elbow. Below is an image of what it looks like when you are kayaking within the paddler’s box for maximum pain-free performance.
- Do not Overextend Your Elbows
Do not force yourself into a position that requires your upper arm bones to be completely horizontal to the ground with arms fully extended as if doing a shoulder press at the gym. Try not to have to stretch out beyond about 90 degrees, which is just past horizontal. A bent shaft paddle will help with this as it angles your upper arm bones up more naturally, reducing the strain on your elbow significantly.
- Stretch Out Your Arms for Warm Up
Stretching out your arms before paddling will increase blood flow to your muscles and joints, which promotes faster recovery time through improved lymphatic system performance.
- Practice a Relaxed Grip
Make it a point to relax your grip around the paddle’s handle throughout the entire kayaking trip-and not just when there is pain. It can be hard at times but becomes much easier with practice. Try to avoid gripping too tightly in the first place, and if you do end up gripping tight then remind yourself to release that tension.
- Listen to your Body
Listening to your body is key here. If something hurts, stop doing it right away. Do not keep going; this may end up causing weeks or months of additional discomfort.
- Be Cautious
If you are kayaking with a bent shaft paddle, make sure to avoid using it for “other” things such as hammering in tent stakes or brushing your teeth. Using it for anything aside from its intended purpose can cause unnecessary strain on the tendons and contribute towards your pain.
While kayaking is a healthy sport that provides many life-enhancing benefits, it can unfortunately also be one of the most common causes of Tennis Elbow. Paying attention to proper paddling technique, properly sizing your paddle, and avoiding over-gripping are all ways to help reduce likelihood of developing Tennis Elbow while kayaking.
If you have already developed Tennis Elbow then practicing good form will help increase your speed with less pain – but you may need some first aid for this injury until it heals before resuming full activity.
Best wishes on your paddling.