Case Study-Lateral Elbow Pain through a DNS/Functional Lens

Case Study-Lateral Elbow Pain through a DNS/Functional Lens
March 14, 2013 Dr. Phillip Snell

Elbow Treatment 1.0

Lateral elbow pain (lateral epicondylitis, AKA tennis elbow, radial nerve entrapment syndromes) is a frequent presentation in our clinic March-May as folks who started a weight routine for a New Year’s resolution begin to ‘crash and burn’ as poor form leads to tissue failure in the extensor tendons for the wrist. Nirschl described a surgical technique in the 1970s which was highly effective at relieving this condition. Common current wisdom is that the putative cause of pain is related to the commonly observed granulation tissue associated with the ‘mobile wad of 3’ extensor tendons. Co-morbidity we frequently see in clinic may include entrapment neuropathies and Miller and Reinus, in 2010 provided a nice review of those. While this is interesting from a structural perspective and helps to inform manual therapies addressing this condition, it is not the thrust of this article. Let’s examine lateral elbow pain from a functional point of view.


Elbow Treatment 2.0 

Borrowing a page from the Joint by Joint approach, the elbow is a hinge joint somewhat analogous to the knee. The literature suggests that many of the maladies of the knee can be addressed by working on strength and mobility around the hip. Similarly with the elbow, we see a stable joint complex surrounded by comparatively more mobile shoulder and wrist joints. Consistent with Joint by Joint, poor mobility in the inherently mobile joint structures will lead to the body “asking for” more mobility in a stable joint complex, in this case the elbow. Often using this approach and working through shoulder mobility and stability we can have a great impact on the long-term function of the elbow. In the last several years this approach has been quite useful in reducing treatment time and improving outcomes in this condition in our clinic. Typically we would focus on improving scapular mobility often using Stecco’s manual therapies to assure appropriate scapular retraction and protraction. Upper thoracic joint mobilization or manipulation was also quite helpful in improving overall shoulder mechanics by improving mobility in the scapular thoracic articulation and in the thoracic spine in order to spare the glenohumeral articulation. A patient in our clinic today provided an excellent example of an even more modern approach integrating DNS principles with the joint by joint and manual therapy methodology.

Elbow Treatment 3.0


SR, a 35-year-old public safety officer, presented with left lateral elbow pain which began insidiously over the past several weeks. Eight weeks before he had started a self-improvement project involving weightlifting using a four day split. Prior to that it had been several years since he had engaged in regular weightlifting. Significant prior history included several incidents of shoulder injury and near dislocations on the affected side. Painful ADLs included reaching for the milk in the back of the refrigerator, lifting a coffee cup, opening a heavy door or gripping the handlebars of his mountain bike. In the gym, patient found benchpress, and overhead pushing and pulling exercises to be provocative.


Objective Findings

In standing, left arm was inwardly rotated and the humerus was palpated in an anteriorly displaced position in the glenoid. Shoulder abduction, external rotation and extension were painlessly limited in active range of motion. Palpation over the left lateral epicondyle of the humerus, passive left wrist flexion, resisted left wrist extension, and strong handshake all produced pain at CC. Strong handshake produced 6/10 severe pain. Intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) assessment revealed rib flare, apical breathing pattern and poor ability to pressurize the thoraco-pelvic canister. Spinal segmental extension restrictions were noted in the thoracic spine. ULNNTs were negative and Spurling’s suggested no radicular involvement.



A structural diagnosis of lateral epicondylitis was rendered with functional contributors including:

  • poor IAP/respiratory pattern per DNS protocols,
  • poor shoulder mobility leading to overuse of the stability-loving joint complex per Joint by Joint approach.

We decided to begin with DNS-informed protocols first to see if patient would be able to correct most of his own condition utilizing functional corrective exercise. We decided that afterward we would address joint and myofascial components as deemed necessary.


Patient was instructed in diaphragmatic breathing while maintaining rib tuck position and long spine. That pattern formed the basis for all subsequent exercises. We then trialed dead bug, wall bug and foam roll progressions and the latter 2 were within patient’s functional pain free range. In short as Dr. Craig Liebenson would put it, they were the most difficult exercises the patient could perform excellently. To see Dr. Liebenson apply this approach you can check out this video. To assist with thoracic extension while providing  a closed chain weight-bearing position for the affected joint complexes patient was coached in modified Sphinx exercise. Before manual therapy was applied, a mid-treatment audit was performed as a handshake test. With firm grip patient smiled widely and noted that he only had  1/10 severe pain in the lateral elbow. Objectively, the strength of the grip was quite a bit more robust.








Subscribers to may view the above videos by clicking on the images.

Manual therapy included prone manipulation of the T4 segment into extension as well as prone combo manipulations of the upper ribs. Glenohumeral rotation mobilizations were provided in internal and external vectors through abduction and flexion ranges of motion to aid in joint capsule mobility. Graston technique was provided using gua sha  type rapid stroke movements proximal to distal to improve blood flow and oxygenation of the extensor muscles. This concluded the treatment portion of the first encounter. Total amount of contact time for this established patient with new presentation was 30 minutes. A posttreatment audit was performed as strong handshake and patient had 0/10 severe pain in the lateral elbow and his grip strength was markedly improved.  He received emailed exercise prescription follow-up of all of these exercises from  He was scheduled for a return visit in one week which will likely consist of manual therapies per Stecco protocols to improve scapulothoracic mobility and joint centration of the glenohumeral articulation.  typical follow-up exercise at that time will likely be closed chain DNS exercises such as Tripod Sit and  Bear Crawling and Therabar Eccentrics.



Previous blog posts here outlined the rationale for addressing the deep spine stabilization system and respiratory pattern in this case. Below is the graphic that shows how those dominoes stack up.


According to DNS theory, the hypertonic upper trapezius represents an adaptational motor program for shoulder stabilization. In the absence of an adequate punctum fixum with a well functioning deep spine stabilization system, lower trapezius and serratus anterior are unable to stabilize the scapula against the chest wall. The upper trapezius is then placed into a primary role to stabilize the shoulder girdle by “plugging it in” to the cervicothoracic area. The resultant alteration in biomechanics pitches scapula upwards and forwards in the shortening of the pectoralis minor and internal rotators. The hypertonicty in these muscles in turn de-centrates the humeral head in the glenoid. While the clinician and manual therapist can positively impact the course of care with manual method alone, adding this kind of foundational corrective exercise dramatically decreases the treatment time and improves the overall musculoskeletal health of the patient. Much of this exercise work can also be provided by a heads up personal trainer who has learned these techniques, but the trainer should have a DC or PT help on the pain management end. Better yet, those trainers who are familiar with DNS assessment techniques for their work, can help avoid having their clients on the disabled list where they can’t train at all.

I will try to follow up with this patient on the blog in future posts. In the meantime, consider for excellent patient/client oriented videos for the correctives shown above as well as many more to help with your functional exercise instruction. Click on the link below to learn more!


Nirschl RP, Pettrone FA. Tennis elbow. The surgical treatment of lateral epicondylitis. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1979 Sep;61(6A):832-9. PubMed PMID: 479229.

Miller TT, Reinus WR. Nerve entrapment syndromes of the elbow, forearm, and wrist. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2010 Sep;195(3):585-94. doi: 10.2214/AJR.10.4817. Review. PubMed PMID: 20729434.

Powers CM. The influence of abnormal hip mechanics on knee injury: a biomechanical perspective. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2010 Feb;40(2):42-51. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2010.3337. Review. PubMed PMID: 20118526.

Strunce JB, Walker MJ, Boyles RE, Young BA. The immediate effects of thoracic spine and rib manipulation on subjects with primary complaints of shoulder pain. J Man Manip Ther. 2009;17(4):230-6. PubMed PMID: 20140154; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2813499.