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 Causes Forearm Strain?
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.
Fix Forearm Strain
Employ dynamic rest.
Avoid activities that engage the elbow and forearm, which includes hard gripping. Use lower-body workouts to maintain fitness.
Apply ice to the area for 15 minutes 4–6 times a day for the first two days.
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 from the forearm strain 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.
Arm Rotations: 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 about a Forearm Strain
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.
Prevent Forearm Strain
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.
Cable Overhead Triceps Extension
Attach a rope handle to the high pulley of a cable station. Grab the rope and stand with your back to the weight stack. Stand in a staggered stance, one foot in front of the other, your knees slightly bent. Bend at your hips until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor. Hold an end of a rope in each hand behind your head, with your elbows bent 90 degrees. Without moving your upper arms, push your forearms forward until your elbows are locked. Allow your palms to turn downward as you completely straighten your arms. Pause, then return to the starting position.
Standing Dumbbell Curl (Reverse Grip)
Grab a pair of dumbbells and let them hang at arm’s length next to your sides. Turn your arms so that your palms face behind you (this is the “reverse grip” which puts more emphasis on your forearms during the lift). Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows and curl the dumbbells as close to your shoulders as you can. Pause, then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position. Each time you return to the starting position, completely straighten your arms.
Stand tall with your legs straight and bend over and touch the floor. Keeping your legs straight, walk your hands forward (if you can’t reach the floor with your legs straight, bend your knees just enough so you can; as your flexibility improves, try to straighten them a little more). Keeping your core braced, walk your hands out as far as you can without allowing your hips to sag. Then take tiny steps to walk your feet back to your hands. That’s one repetition. Do 5 forward and then 5 more in reverse. NOTE: This is a good total-body exercise, but as you “walk with your hands,” you’ll feel the effectiveness in your forearms and hands.
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.