Elbow Pain from Yoga (A Helpful Guide)

 Nurudeen Tijani (T.J.) Founder of TitaniumPhysique | Pain Relief Fitness Coach

Written by: Nurudeen Tijani

Last updated: June 14, 2024

I've been practicing yoga for ten years, and I've dealt with and overcome many elbow injuries. Here's how I fixed my injuries. The primary cause of elbow pain from yoga is restricted triceps and forearm muscles that strain the elbow tendons during asanas. To prevent discomfort, maintain pliable triceps and forearms through self-myofascial release exercises. These exercises can instantly relieve the restrictions in the muscles and minimize the risk of injury, overuse, and inflammation.

Take the first step to eliminate muscle and tendon pain. Get Started Now.

Nurudeen has elbow pain from yoga while performing the reverse warrior pose

Listen to the article: 14 minutes

Understanding Elbow Pain from Yoga

Why do I have pain from yoga? How do I fix it?

Elbow discomfort from yoga can occur for several reasons, including

  1. Restricted biceps, triceps, and forearms (shortened, tight, and tense muscles)
  2. Inadequate stretching or warm-up of these muscles before attempting complex yoga poses
  3. Poor form or technique during asanas
  4. Inadequate recovery
  5. Lack of myofascial release

These factors, individually or in combination, can cause discomfort during yoga. Yet, for most people, the primary cause is restricted triceps and forearms that strain the elbow tendons due to lack of myofascial release.

To prevent this condition, prioritize warm-up, proper form, good technique, and, most importantly, maintain pliable triceps and forearms through self-myofascial release "SMR" exercises. 

SMR involves using tools like foam rollers or massage balls to release tight and tense muscles. Restricted muscles exert tension and strain tendons. When you release these muscles, they become more pliable and elastic, reducing the pulling tension on the tendon and joint.

SMR is the fastest way to treat and alleviate muscle and tendon pain. Follow the step-by-step guidance of the TitaniumPhysique Program to see fast results. Get Started Now.

Why does my elbow hurt after doing yoga?

Poses such as chaturanga or "push-movements" involved in Ashtanga yoga sun salutation A (which include plank pose, chaturanga, upward-facing dog, and downward-facing dog) can trigger or worsen pain because they involve the triceps and elbow tendons.

Prolonged contraction and tension of the triceps tendon and repetitive use of the elbow during these poses can strain and inflame the triceps and elbow tendons, resulting in acute pain after yoga.

Acute discomfort is an inflammatory pain experienced during or immediately after physical activity. In this case, symptoms include:

  • Burning pain around the tip and joint of the elbow.
  • A sensation of heat, swelling, soreness, or redness in the elbow area.
  • Elbow discomfort bending and straightening the arm.
  • Dull, sharp, or shooting pain in the elbow during or after yoga.
Nurudeen practicing Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

I'm practicing Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) during yoga (2019).

Nurudeen practicing the downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)

I'm practicing chaturanga with a downward-facing dog during yoga (2019).

Why am I experiencing pain inside, outside, or at the back of my elbow during yoga?

  1. Inner pain - during poses such as side plank, reverse plank, tabletop, and wheel pose, the forearm flexor muscles may become overloaded, resulting in inflammation of the tendon on the inside part of the elbow, causing inner pain (known as golfer's elbow). Discomfort at the inner part of the elbow crease can also result from brachialis tendonitis.
  2. Outer pain - during poses like the high plank or chaturanga (low plank), the forearm extensor muscles can strain and inflame the tendon outside the elbow, causing outer pain (known as tennis elbow). Discomfort at the outer part of the elbow crease can also result from distal bicep tendonitis (lower bicep injury).
  3. Pain at the Back of the Elbow - lastly, during poses such as downward dog, upward dog, cobra, planche, crane, crow, and peacock pose, the triceps muscle can pull and inflame the triceps tendon, causing pain at the back of the elbow (known as triceps tendonitis).
A comparison photo of the forearm extensors and triceps muscle/tendon

A side-by-side comparison photo of the forearm extensors and triceps muscle. Left image: Illustration of the forearm extensor muscle group and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the shoulder joint, scapula, arm bone, and triceps brachii muscle and tendon. When these muscle groups become shortened, they cause elbow discomfort. The "X" indicated on each photo is where trigger points in the forearm muscles tend to occur. Trigger points cause pain and tenderness and can develop due to muscle overuse, stress, or injury.

Why do I suddenly experience pain during yoga without an apparent cause?

The muscle conditions that lead to pain during yoga develop gradually and cumulatively. Over time, the repetitive use of the triceps and forearm muscles can lead to muscle restriction, causing them to become shortened and inelastic. This process of muscle restriction can take months or even years to develop.

When the triceps and forearm muscles are chronically restricted, everyday activities like gripping objects tightly, engaging in physical activity, and yoga asanas can unexpectedly trigger pain without an apparent cause.

Unfortunately, most people are often unaware of the restricted state of their forearm or triceps muscles until they experience this sudden onset of discomfort during these activities. This point is the biggest takeaway from this article.

Whenever someone tells me they have elbow discomfort, I show them how to perform the forearm pliability test (see the video below).

During the test, most people will feel a dull but intense pain in the area, usually within a few seconds. Every time I have performed this test on friends at the gym, they are surprised by the tense and restricted states of these muscles.

YouTube video

In this video, I demonstrate how to perform the forearm pliability test to discover the hidden/root cause of most elbow tendonitis injuries.

Impact of Yoga on Elbows

Can muscle tension in the forearm contribute to pain during yoga?

Yes, muscle tension in the forearm contributes to pain in the elbow during yoga. Muscle tension is one of the root causes of elbow tendonitis.

During yoga asanas, the triceps and forearm muscles activate and contract. As you continue to exercise, the forearm flexor, forearm extensor, and triceps muscles can become tense, tighter, and shortened.

The shortened triceps and forearm muscles exert increased tension on the elbow and triceps tendon, reducing their elasticity. As a result, the tendons become strained and inflamed, causing elbow discomfort.

For a deep dive into the root causes of elbow tendonitis, bursitis, chronic versus acute pain, and the fastest way to fix these conditions, check out these resources:

A comparison photo of the forearm extensors and triceps muscle/tendon

A side-by-side comparison photo of the forearm extensors and flexor muscles. Left image: Illustration of the forearm extensor muscle group and tendon. Right photo: Illustration of the forearm flexor muscles and tendon. When these muscle groups become shortened, they cause elbow discomfort.

Nurudeen practicing the plank pose (phalakasana)

I'm practicing the Plank pose (Phalakasana) during yoga in a fitness studio (2019).

Can yoga cause tendonitis in the elbow?

Yes, yoga can cause tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, and triceps tendonitis.

However, it's important to note that yoga is not the underlying cause of this condition. Instead, yoga poses can worsen restricted forearm and tricep muscles, triggering pain.

  1. Golfer's elbow - prolonged contraction and tension in the forearms, as well as repetitive use of the elbow during poses such as side plank, reverse plank, tabletop, wheel pose, downward dog, upward dog, and cobra pose, strain the forearm flexor muscles. This occurrence can result in inflammation of the tendon on the inside part of the elbow (medial elbow tendon), causing golfer's elbow.
  2. Tennis elbow - prolonged contraction and tension in the forearm, along with repetitive use of the elbow during poses such as the high plank, chaturanga, and upward dog, strain the forearm extensor muscles. This occurrence can lead to inflammation of the tendon on the outside part of the elbow (common extensor tendon), causing tennis elbow.
  3. Triceps tendonitis - prolonged contraction and tension of the triceps muscle, as well as repetitive use of the elbow during Ashtanga yoga or poses like plank, chaturanga, downward dog, and upward dog, inflame the triceps tendon, ultimately leading to triceps tendonitis.
Nurudeen practicing the cobra pose (bhujangasana)

I'm practicing the Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) during yoga in a fitness studio (2019).

Can yoga cause elbow bursitis?

Yes, yoga can cause elbow bursitis, which is the inflammation of the bursa in the elbow joint. 

There are two forms of elbow bursitis: acute and chronic. Acute bursitis can result from trauma or infection, while chronic bursitis develops gradually due to prolonged pressure on the elbows.

Yogis often experience chronic bursitis, characterized by the formation of a hard lump at the tip of the elbow bone, commonly known as a "pointy elbow."

Certain yoga poses, such as Headstand, Elbow bridge pose, Forearm plank pose, Side forearm plank pose, and Forearm downward-facing dog, can contribute to chronic bursitis by exerting excessive pressure on the elbows.

A comparison between a normal versus an inflamed olecranon bursa

Side-by-side comparison of elbow bursitis: The image on the left shows a person's left arm with elbow bursitis. The 3D picture on the right shows a normal versus an inflamed olecranon bursa. Image sources: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and Cleveland Clinic.

Can yoga cause damage to the elbows?

When performed with proper form and technique, yoga asanas, even challenging and complex poses, do not cause damage to the elbows. However, individuals with elbow tendonitis may experience a worsening of chronic discomfort or the development of acute pain, potentially leading to elbow tendinosis.

Tendinosis is a condition characterized by the degeneration of tendon collagen due to repetitive stress and chronic injury. It can result in a loss of strength in the tendon and may even lead to tendon tear or rupture.

Therefore, practicing asanas with pre-existing elbow or triceps tendonitis (inflammatory tendon pain) can increase the risk of developing elbow tendinosis and potentially cause damage to the elbows.

Illustration of elbow tendinosis, elbow tendon tear

An illustration shows elbow tendinopathy in the medial (inner) and lateral (outer) elbow tendons.

Is yoga bad for the elbows?

Practicing yoga is safe and unlikely to cause injury to the elbow.

However, prioritize proper form and technique, incorporate sufficient rest periods, gradually progress from gentle and easy to complex and challenging asanas, and utilize myofascial release techniques to alleviate restricted triceps and forearm muscles.

Additionally, it is essential to include an adequate warm-up routine for the triceps and forearm muscles and elbow/triceps tendons before starting your yoga session.

Managing Pain and Modifications

Can I still do yoga?

It depends on several factors, including:

  1. The severity of the pain: If the pain is mild and acute, you can use short-term pain relief measures such as sports or kinesiology tape, elbow sleeves, braces, or straps to help alleviate discomfort during yoga. However, suppose the pain is chronic or severe or causes sharp pain during yoga. In that case, it is best to address the underlying cause of the pain before resuming your practice.
  2. The extent of the tendonitis: While it might be manageable to practice yoga with a mild case of tennis elbow, experiencing concurrent tendonitis that causes pain on the inside, outside, and back of the elbow can intensify post-exercise inflammation, worsen pain symptoms and prolong the recovery of the elbow.
  3. The type and difficulty level of yoga: Yin yoga, Hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga, and restorative yoga are forms of yoga that individuals with elbow discomfort can practice. These styles focus on gentle and relaxed poses, flexibility, working slowly, using props, and promoting relaxation. They are suitable for beginners, individuals with injuries, or those with chronic medical conditions such as arthritis. On the other hand, Ashtanga yoga or Vinyasa flow is physically demanding and involves complex and repetitive sequences of postures. These types of yoga are best suited for healthy individuals without elbow issues who seek a physically challenging yoga experience.

Nurudeen performing the crane pose

I'm practicing the Crane Pose (Bakasana) during yoga in a fitness studio (2018).

Nurudeen practicing the seated spinal twist pose (ardha matsyendrasana)

I'm practicing the Seated Spinal Twist Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana) during yoga (2019).

Can yoga help with tennis or golfer's elbow?

Yes, yoga can help resolve these elbow conditions when combined with ongoing myofascial release of the forearms.

Certain types of yoga and specific poses can serve as a form of physical therapy by stretching the forearm muscles, strengthening the elbow tendons, and mobilizing the elbow joint.

Myofascial release plays a crucial role in this process. It involves using myofascial release tools, such as a massage ball, to release muscle tension and restrictions in the forearms and triceps.

It's important to note that stretching and strengthening the forearm and elbow joints alone may not fully address the root cause of tennis or golfer's elbow. It is essential to address the underlying factors contributing to the condition, such as chronic inflammation, magnesium deficiency, and muscle restriction, to achieve long-term relief and recovery.

Which yoga poses should I avoid?

Avoid yoga poses that require excessive pressure on the wrist, bending of the elbow, or prolonged contraction of the triceps muscle.

Here is a list of 17 yoga poses to avoid:

  1. Sun Salutation A (vinyasa yoga)
  2. Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  3. Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
  4. Cobra pose (Bhujangasana)
  5. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho mukha svanasana)
  6. One-Legged Downward-Facing Dog (Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana)
  7. Side Plank (Vasisthasana)
  8. Plank Pose (Phalakasana)
  9. Reverse Plank Pose (Purvottanasana)
  10. Table Top Pose (Ardha Purvottanasana)
  11. Crane Pose (Bakasana)
  12. Crow Pose (Kakasana)
  13. Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)
  14. Peacock Pose (Mayurasana)
  15. Firefly Pose (Tittibhasana)
  16. Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
  17. Eight-Angle Pose (Astavakrasana)

Healing and Prevention

How long does it take to heal?

By combining post-exercise treatments such as cold therapy (to relieve burning pain), magnesium supplementation (to reduce inflammation), and self-myofascial release (to alleviate sharp or dull pain), it is possible to treat and heal elbow pain caused by yoga within 7-10 days.

It will involve performing self-myofascial release (SMR) on the triceps and forearm muscles at least 2-3 times daily.

Get step-by-step guidance with my TitaniumPhysique Program to ensure you do these exercises correctly and effectively, and see results as fast as possible. Get Started Now.

Remember - resting the elbow (i.e., taking a break from physical activity) may provide temporary relief, but it will not fix the root cause of the pain - restricted triceps and forearm muscles that overload the elbow tendons and lead to elbow discomfort during yoga.

What options do I have to stop pain in my elbow?

To stop your elbows from hurting during yoga, you have two options: using short-term pain relief remedies for temporary relief or addressing the root cause of the pain to prevent its recurrence.

Option #1: Short-term relief remedies. These include:

  • Using joint supplements and vitamins
  • Taking anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs)
  • Undergoing physical therapy
  • Incorporating stretching exercises
  • Applying ice and resting the affected area
  • Wearing elbow braces or sleeves
  • Using kinesiology tape
  • Applying topical anti-inflammatory solutions such as oils and creams

Option #2: Fix the root cause to prevent elbow pain from interfering with your yoga practice. Address muscle restriction by improving forearm, triceps, and biceps muscle pliability.

Learn how my TitaniumPhysique Program can help you quickly eliminate pain at its source. Get Started Now.

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