Hold onto your handlebars—here’s how to treat and prevent forearm strain.
You’ll know you strained your forearm if you have pain during activity, especially hand movements, and possibly at night. The muscles of the forearm feel stiff and there could be some swelling. Severe strains involve more pain and loss of strength. Pain can come on gradually (as a chronic problem) or suddenly from a forceful movement (as an acute injury).
What’s Going on in There?
The forearm has a lot more “moving parts,” so to speak, than you think. Along with the radius and ulna, you have more than a dozen muscles and tendons stretching between your elbow and wrist. In the same way that the lower leg deals directly with the foot, ankle, and knee, all of the forearm’s parts work in conjunction with the hand, wrist and elbow. The forearm muscles support constant wrist pronation (rotation so the palm faces down) and supination (rotation so the palm faces up), as well as extension and flexion of the elbow.
Because of that, you can strain a muscle or tendon with overuse over time or abruptly with a forceful movement. Forearm tendinitis is also common with overuse.
Like all strains, forearm strains are graded from 1 to 3. Grade 1 is mild and involves no loss of strength. Grade 2 involves more severe pain and loss of strength. Grade 3 is a muscle-tendon rupture and requires surgery.
Important: Another forearm injury that could be at fault when your forearm hurts is pronator syndrome, which is compression of the median nerve by muscles in the forearm, especially the pronator muscle. A key symptom is forearm weakness that makes it difficult for you to make an “OK” sign with your thumb and index finger. The forearm strain remedies below can also help with pronator syndrome.
Employ dynamic rest. Avoid activities that engage the elbow and forearm, which includes hard gripping. Use lower-body workouts to maintain fitness.
Ice it. Apply ice to the area for 15 minutes 4–6 times a day for the first two days.
Massage. A massage technique called myofascial release can help relieve symptoms. Every muscle is encased in a tough, fibrous sheath called the fascia, which can tighten and constrict the muscle. Regular forearm massage can loosen the fascia, allowing the muscle to relax.
Recondition your forearm. As the pain improves, you can do some simple exercises to rehab your arm and get yourself back to your normal activities. Here are three.
Tennis Ball Squeeze
Squeeze a tennis ball in your hand. Hold for several seconds and release. Start with a few reps and increase the number as pain allows. If you feel pain, back off.
Hold your arm straight out in front of you parallel to the floor and palm up. Make a fist. Turn your fist over as if you’re flipping a pancake. Add reps as the pain allows. As you get stronger, add weight to your fist by holding a light dumbbell, then a hammer and eventually a tennis racket.
Wrist Extension and Flexion
Extension: With your arm straight out in front of you parallel to the floor and your palm down, bend your wrist downward. Hold for several seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Flexion: With your arm straight out in front of you parallel to the floor and your palm up, lift your wrist upward. Hold for several seconds. Return to the starting position and repeat. You can also add a light dumbbell (or even a can of beans) to these exercises as you get stronger.
When to Call a Doctor
Most forearm strains or cases of tendinitis don’t require a doctor visit, but for more severe strains you’ll want to go. A doctor can help find out just how badly injured you are and if there are any other injuries or complications that go along with it.
Mild strains usually heal up in a week or two. Grade 2 problems can linger for six weeks. Grade 3 strains will require surgery to repair the rupture. The key with forearm strains is to let them heal completely. They tend to hang around or to come back if you don’t give them enough time to heal and rehab properly. Be mindful of pain as you return to activity and back off when you need to.
For “gripping” sports (as in sports that require a strong grip, such as cycling), you have to condition your arms, especially your forearms. The stronger and more supple your extensor muscles, the less chance you have of pulling a muscle from a sudden force or longer-term overuse. You can add the stretches and exercises above to any workout.
New York City sports medicine specialist Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. is a 33-time marathon finisher and 13-time Ironman. His book, The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies, has more than 1,000 tips to fix all types of injuries and medical conditions.
From the Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies by Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. with Mike Zimmerman. Copyright 2012 by Rodale Inc. Published by arrangement with Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.