One of the more common issues I see with MMA fighters and grappling is elbow injury pain. Specifically, pain in one or more of the tendons of the muscles that bend the elbow. Every time a jab is snapped out and pulled back…it hurts. When a takedown is attempted…it hurts. Trying to maintain wrist control…it hurts. As we get into the why’s and how’s of this type of elbow pain I am going to make some generalizations and give you suggestions that should help reduce pain and improve activity tolerance, but an article is no substitute for an examination by competent medical professional.
MMA is a relatively new sport so most participants have a base in either striking or grappling then add other disciplines to round out their skill set. When you have an athlete used to jiu-jitsu drills who suddenly add hundreds of left jabs into his weekly schedule, the stress on the elbow flexors is significantly increased; the same can be said for a boxer or muy thai fighter who adds grappling. The added stress on the forearm, elbow and gripping muscles can contribute elbow pain. Athletes also start working with strength and conditioning coaches. Adding cleans, high pulls, pull-ups, etc all increases stress on the elbows. They are great and necessary exercises but can play a role in elbow pain. It’s all about stress and how your body tolerates it. Additional stress on the shoulder can contribute to your elbow injury pain as well. In order to keep this article to a manageable size, I will focus on the elbow flexors themselves.
Let’s start with symptom management after an elbow injury. For this type of pain, ice usually helps. The most effective, in my opinion, is an ice massage. Take some foam cups or paper cups and fill them up with water. Put them in the freezer until they are solid. Peel the lip off of the cup and rub the ice where you are sore covering a baseball size area. Make sure to keep the ice moving all the time in order to prevent frost bite. When the area is numb to the touch, you are done. This usually take about 7 minutes. There is a product called a Cryocup that can be reused if you are environmentally conscious. You can also use an ice bag for 15-20min but I don’t think ice bags are as effective. Whatever you choose needs to be done 3-5x/day. In the past I have tried products containing arnica gel for various injuries that I have had. I have found that the thicker the tissue around the injury, the less effective it is. In the case of pain in the elbow flexors, products that contain arnica may actually help with symptom management. The tendons this area are not real deep so topical pain relievers can help. There are also topical creams that you can get from your physician that can contain a variety of anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or voltaren. Success with these also seems to vary depending on the depth of the affected tissue. Using ice and/or topical gels usually will not fix the problem. They merely help you tolerate the symptoms.
In order to increase the stress tolerance of the elbow flexors, isometrics are a great place to start. They are simple and can be done anywhere. You are going to bend the elbow of the sore arm as far as you can comfortably, like you are doing a bicep curl. You are then going to place the opposite hand on the wrist of your sore arm and try to push the arm down. Hold this for 6 seconds. You will do one rep at about 30% effort, 1×50%, 1×70% and 3×100% for a total of 6 reps. If you feel pain or weakness at any effort level, you drop back to the previous effort level and finish all remaining reps at that level. If you make a mistake in your effort, err on the side of too little effort. Don’t get too aggressive with these. I have had a number of people who thought that if they did all the reps at 100% it would get better faster. It doesn’t work that way with an elbow injury.
So now you have a total of three exercises for an elbow injury that only take 36 seconds each that can get you on your way to pain free elbows! Initially you’ll only do these once a day to see how you tolerate them. If they go ok for the first couple days you can do them multiple times (2-4) per day. Before and after practice are great times to fit them in. As these exercises become pain free you can be more aggressive with your strength and conditioning program to gain strength and endurance.