View Full Version : What do you do for elbow pain from hammering nails?

Bill Mercer
04-11-2012, 02:52 PM
I've periodically hammered nails since I was a kid. Now all of a sudden there's pain in the outside of my elbow. A couple of years ago I built a skiff that was mostly riveted together and had the cross-planked bottom ring nailed to the side planks, and never had a problem. Now I'm just knocking nail heads into lofting to pick up station mold shapes, and tacking mold stock together so I can bandsaw out both sides at once, and all of a sudden I've got pain. The only difference I can think of is that I had a serious non-carpentry-related injury to my other elbow last summer and had five months of little exercise beyond physical therapy. If you've had elbow problems, what did you do about it? Does hammer weight matter? I've been using a medium-weight hammer with a slim steel handle, which I've used for years--professionals would probably look down on it, but the balance feels right to me. Should I switch to a wood or fg handle?


David G
04-11-2012, 03:05 PM
Hey Bill,

Step away from the hammer. What you likely have is a budding case of tendonitis. I've had it in both elbows, and it's a bear to get rid of - if you let it get a grip on you. It's an inflammation of the tendons where they attach to the bone at the elbow joint.

Continuing to do that thing which aggravates can easily turn it into a permanent or semi-permanent condition.

While you're NOT hammering (can you train your sweetie to tap those nails in where you want them?) you want to be flooding the area with an influx of fresh blood & fluids... then flushing them back out. I found a couple of things helpful. First is deep tissue massage. Those muscles which attach at the elbow will tighten up in response to the pain in your elbow. Working them will relax them and allow for better blood flow. Second is lots of bouts of hot/cold treatments. Wrap the area with a hot pad until the whole area is suffused with fluids and bright red. Then swap for an ice pack to force those fluids back out. The flushing will bring fresh nutrients and then remove the waste products. Third is lots of MILD stretching.

I also wore an elastic elbow brace... which seemed to help, though I'm less positive it those effects.

If you're going to seek out professional treatment - the other two things that seemed to help were ultrasound treatments, and electostimulation.

G'luck... and don't take this lightly.

Jamie Orr
04-11-2012, 03:17 PM
Rest is good, take a break for a while and work only for short periods. Also an elastic bandage just below the elbow will reduce the pain - the drug store will sell you a band designed for this but I forget what it's called. Finally, Celebrex will reduce the inflammation, I find it works better than Ibuprofen and doesn't aggravate my high blood pressure, according to the doc.

Mine went away after a while.


Bill Mercer
04-11-2012, 03:25 PM
Hmm. Well, I've only been working intermittently and for short periods of time already. This is frustrating. Maybe I can use my left hand to tap the nail heads into the lofting and use screws instead of nails to put things together. Sigh.

wizbang 13
04-11-2012, 03:33 PM
I am just beginning to fall apart myself, one of my thumbs has gone numb. carpal tunnel?
I am committed to avoid steroids or almost any drug, celebrex is no exception.
turmeric is a good anti inflammatory. the pain is from the inflammation.
hot and cold hydro therapy, per David G is very strong, also a red pepper poultice will draw blood.
Slowing down is easier said than done. I began my new Wizbang today.

04-11-2012, 03:36 PM
Stop Hammering! Both posts above are dead on, but I might add that taking a break might mean not hammering for several weeks or longer depending on the severity of the pain. Though six weeks or more may seem like a long time, it is nothing compared to a lifetime injury limiting or completely ending your ability to perform these tasks. Tendonitis put me in a cast for six weeks as a healthy and pretty fit young man. The pain is strangely acute. These types of repetitive movements are exactly the sort that lead to joint injuries. Moreover, the overcompensation that can occur trying to work around the pain can result in worse injuries requiring pain killers, physical therapy, and even surgery. Take a break. A long break.

Tom Lathrop
04-11-2012, 03:50 PM
Rest is the best thing to do for it but you may not be able to just quit. I can't, or to be honest, I won't. I have about 10 different kinds of hammers. When I was building my house, I tried a steel handle (rubber grip) 20oz framing hammer and it gave me fits. Tried a fiberglass handle (rubber grip) and it was better but still bothered the elbow. Pulled out grandpa's very old legacy wood handle 16oz job and the problem went away after a while. I don't think it is just the springyness of the handle that many attribute for ease of hammering. I think it may have to do with the way my hand slips just a bit on the wood at the end of the stroke, which can't happen with the grippy rubber handle. This may release the grip a bit and ease the shock, which is certainly the culprit for elbow problems. More smaller blows is better than fewer harder blows for the elbow.

04-11-2012, 03:52 PM
Tumeric is THE BEST natural anti-inflamatory out there. To use it to best effect take it with pepper. (sounds like curry, stew, etc. to me) For more on the subject the book Anti Cancer is the latest on healthy anti cancer eating and lifestyle. It's a good read. Even if you're not cancer worried, you'll still learn alot about healthy diet that may help your particular case. Tumeric is a great idea Bruce.

Bill Mercer
04-11-2012, 04:00 PM
So do you just add more turmeric to your diet? I already use it in pilafs from time to time.

Has anybody succeeded in learning to hammer ambidextrously? How many fingers did you flatten while learning?

04-11-2012, 04:02 PM
Use it more often. I put it on alot of stuff just like you would any other spice or seasoning. Might give it a different taste but the stuff is really good for you. Read the book. It's a great read.
I don't have the ba!!$ to try hammering with my left hand for fear of flattening my right fingers.

David G
04-11-2012, 04:07 PM
So do you just add more turmeric to your diet? I already use it in pilafs from time to time.

Has anybody succeeded in learning to hammer ambidextrously? How many fingers did you flatten while learning?

I learned to do everything left-handed, because I couldn't afford (I thought) to stop working and rest the right hand. That's the way I got tendonitis in BOTH elbows.

04-11-2012, 04:08 PM
If you were here (in free healthcare land) I'd say go get an x-ray and an ultrasound, check whether you have any calcification, tears or anchoring problems with tendons, or any aberrant bony changes, and take them to someone with specialty knowledge - get a diagnosis - then choose how to fix it. While it may seem like tennis elbow, it could be a radial nerve issue, or maybe something to do with your neck.
Try not to bend your wrist back (extend) if you use a hammer - indeed don't use you wrist to lever a hammer, that could have been the start of it - good hammering (to never miss a nail) involves articulation at the elbow, rather than the wrist; but importantly, don't do anything that hurts.


Bill Mercer
04-11-2012, 04:14 PM
If you were here (in free healthcare land) I'd say go get an x-ray and an ultrasound, check whether you have any calcification, tears or anchoring problems with tendons, or any aberrant bony changes, and take them to someone with specialty knowledge - get a diagnosis - then choose how to fix it

Luckily I have decent health insurance, so I suppose I'll be seeing a doctor. I've been through physical therapy three times in the last three years, once for an acute injury (torn ligament) and twice for overuse/abuse injuries (neck, kneed and ankle--luckily I had the knee and ankle problems at the same time). It'd be nice to go a while without physical therapy.

04-11-2012, 04:15 PM
Get a gun... Do it now.
When I finally couldn't pick up my coffee cup I knew I had waited too long


04-11-2012, 04:19 PM
Check what I added above about hammering

04-11-2012, 04:59 PM
What you have is commonly called 'tennis elbow'. It is an inflammation of the tendon attachment to the bone as mentioned. It is an overuse injury because the muscle tendon unit has become weakened, probably during that rehab process you spoke about. The therapist should have had you doing the Lbow X's to BOTH arms!! An advil a couple of times a day will help get the inflammation under control. Meanwhile, do the light stretching (curl (flex) the fingers, curl the wrist). You really should go to a Physical therapist and get a graduated strengthening program. The problem for most folks is that when they get a sore something, they rest it. When your muscle gets insulted it protects itself by shutting down. This causes it to weaken within a week. If you rest the sore something for a couple of weeks, take some antiinflams and the pain goes away, you naturally think you are good to go again. Wrong. the muscle tendon unit is now weaker than before and invariably it will flare up again. FOlks get into these chronic issues that way. I would suggest you go to a sporting goods store and by a "counterforce brace". Just tell them it is for tennis elbow. Just a strap with velcro fasteners. They work very well to distribute the force of contraction off the bump on your elbow that hurts right now. I would also suggest going to a wooden handle on your hammer as they absorb the shock from impact. Handle size matters as well.

Get on top of it right away or it willbecome a chronic issue.


04-11-2012, 05:08 PM
For what it's worth, I had a serious and prolonged case of what you describe and neither rest nor physio did anything to alleviate it. After suffering with it for about 4 months I tried accupuncture and three treatments over two weeks fixed it without any recurrence. I now use a Stanley antivibe hammer, I don't really know whether or not that has helped stop any recurrence but it is a great hammer to use all day long.

wizbang 13
04-11-2012, 05:11 PM
ten bucks says your md will want to shoot it with cortisone, that is all they know. or cut cut cut.
SPOONFULLS of the dried powder in warm water, or if you use a juicer, put the fresh stuff in there with the carrots, and beets .It looks like orange ginger
If you are taking more than 6 advil a year, you need a new doctor, one who will HEAL you.

04-11-2012, 07:20 PM
+1 on the cortizone. Don't go near it. Use naturopathic methods to relieve the inflammation or whatever, but remember to strengthen it after you feel better. Get your physio to put you on eccentric wrist drops. They are magic at getting rid of TE.

Rob Hazard
04-11-2012, 07:27 PM
Question: your hammer wouldn't happen to be an Estwing, would it?

04-11-2012, 08:00 PM
I would give my right arm to be ambidexterous.

04-11-2012, 08:40 PM
I would give my right arm to be ambidexterous.
Now that is funny

Michael D. Storey
04-12-2012, 07:52 AM
At 63 I find that these things do creep up on me; rigfht down to the stiff ring finger that slows typing. And effects accuracy, too.
I hjave had the same experience hammering. I use a 22 oz estwing for framing. The rubber handle is long enough to choke up some, which helps. My Son loaned me his california framing hammer, which has a thicker handle, which effects fingers and wrist, and then on up the line a little. I find that the change is a way to get some relief mid-task. Like changoing shoes when you have to be on your feet for another few hours after a long day.

willin woodworks
04-12-2012, 09:41 AM
Getting old sucks. My knees ache after a day in the shop even with anti fatigue mats now. My right hand gets sore and stiff. I second all the advice to stay away rom cortisone etc. Never tried turmeric but now I'm going to. I use MSM fro sore joints. Get the pure MSM, not the stuff with any kind of glucosamine or condroitin. Just pure MSM. I find that it helps.

Try a wooden handled 16 oz hammer. The butt end of the handle should have a decent poll; at least I think thats what the fat part at the end is called...Try not to grip the handle tightly. All you need to do is have enough of a grip to keep it from slipping out of your hand.

I disagree with the notion that you shouldn't use your wrist but I'm guessing that if you ask 100 framers/carpenters how to hold and swing a hammer you'll get 110 different answers...

When my elbow starts to ache I loosen my grip.

04-12-2012, 09:45 AM
If you have been using a steel hammer for a long time you could also have a similar injury to shin splints in your forearm. Tiny hairline fractures to both bones can happen from using a hammer that doesnt give enough repetetively over a long period of time. Again a good long rest will heal that up too.

Bill Mercer
04-12-2012, 12:44 PM
Question: your hammer wouldn't happen to be an Estwing, would it?

I believe it is--I'm at work now and the hammer's at home.

04-12-2012, 02:25 PM
The first 25 years of my building experience were with an Estwing 20 oz. framing hammer. My elbow began to hurt like hell after 10 years. The next 10 I got used to it... it was that or starve. Then I got a Bostich framing nailer and new pains developed but I could sure build faster. My advice? Nah, I got nuthin'. ;)

Bob Cleek
04-12-2012, 02:36 PM
I'm curious if anybody's had any experience with one of these gizmos. They don't cost much (the one pictured is less than $25 at Horror Fright.) I'm wondering if they are any good for heading up rivets, too.


Bob Cleek
04-12-2012, 02:37 PM
(No, I didnt' make the picture that big!)

Bill Mercer
04-12-2012, 06:04 PM
If you look at that http://www.folkstreams.net/film,41 you'll see Charles Hankins using something very like that to head up rivets. I believe that you need to grind a little concavity on the business end, but I've never tried it.

Jay Greer
04-12-2012, 07:05 PM
I started having problems with joint pain about twenty years ago. Being a wood carver was a real irritant to my basil thumb joints. Then I discovered Japanese hammers which are more erginomicaly designed than our Western counterparts. Using the well balanced Japanese hammers made a world of differednce but, Father Time came along with a frost warning anyway. I found that ice is my best friend. Some times it helps to mix it with some scotch! I do resort to a cortizone shot, in the joint, about once a year. It does give good relief from the pain. I wish it wasn't so but merd happens!

landlocked sailor
04-13-2012, 01:32 AM
Bill, you have lateral epicondylitis, aka tennis elbow. It's an overuse inflamation where the tendon inserts on the bone. There is no real cure except time and rest. NSAIDs like motrin can give symptomatic relief and there is no advantage of one over another; just be careful or they can cause gastritis and ulcers. Never take 'em on an empty stomach. Though steroid injections may help temporarily, they do not shorten the course on the disease. Ice message works as well and is otherwise w/o side effects. I had fair results wearing a band on the forearm just beyond the elbow; it sort of splints the tendon and takes the strain off. My last bout started after trying to start a recalctrant chainsaw and lasted a full 6 months, which is pretty typical. That was 5 or 6 years ago and has been quiescent since. No quick fix unfortunately. Rick (MD)

Rob Hazard
04-13-2012, 05:49 AM
I asked about the Estwing because I had a similar experience during my carpentry years. Not only elbow pain, but tingling and numbness in my hammer arm and hand. Rest helped, but I also switched from an Estwing 22oz one piece forged shank hammer with the blue plastic grip to a Stanley 20 oz with a hickory handle. I found that the Stanley was easier on my arm. Of course getting out of house carpentry also helped! :)

04-15-2012, 08:20 PM
We could go on forever about this hammer versus that hammer, and I'm not sure we'd get anywhere. Wood is a resonant structure-that's why they build guitars and pianos out of wood, not steel/rubber. Resonance is not good when it's coming up a hammer handle, headed toward your elbow.
I used to be young, and dumb, and swung a whole battery of 22+ ounch framing hammers, and was quite sure I'd like forever. Now I have an air nailer. The only substitute for that is to get my 20-year old son on the job with my old Estwing. But he's off in the next country to the north, studying computer science....

04-15-2012, 09:02 PM
Frozen peas (In the bag) then a hot shower. Frozen peas (still in the bag), and a heating pad.
Frozen peas (Yup..... ), and a hot shower. Frozen peas (Just leave them alone!), and a heating pad.
Frozen peas (out of the bag), in boiling water with butter and a little salt and pepper. Served with mashed potatoes, with more butter and salt, and crispy seared, boneless breast of duckling with a black current and red wine reduction. Complimented with a quite nice Raven's Wood Mendocino Estate bottled Zinfandel served at cave temp (42-46f).... And for dessert 80% Cocoa dark chocolate mousse made from genuine water buffalo's milk, with just a schpritz of crushed cocoa berries, and sweet little chunklettes of the candied orange rind mixed in before being crowned with that Nice mixture of a chocolate....But with that ominous black suit and car anb

04-16-2012, 12:07 AM
heavier hammer. and now for some strange reason, i need to go rummage around in the frige

04-16-2012, 12:34 AM
It's a funny world! I have a heavy Stanley hammer and was getting a lot of strain in my arm too so I switched to a lighter Estwing hammer and that seems to have helped a lot. I think the real solution is to grow younger.


04-16-2012, 06:31 AM
As far as the air hammering gizmo goes, I haven't used them much. They're okay for doubling joists, which is hard on your elbow trying to swing a hammer head up between the joists. Other than that, they're slow.
Also, I have spend many hours using vibrating gizmos such as needle gun scalers and "bumblebee" scalers on steel hulls, and chainsaws. They might not be bad for your elbow, but they're terrible for your hands and wrist.

04-16-2012, 10:05 AM
don't forget "hearing"

04-16-2012, 10:14 AM

04-16-2012, 11:36 AM
My elbow improved dramatically when I sold my caulking mallet and irons. The pain is, however, now returning with a vengeance. I blame age. I now try to do most of my hammering with compressed air. Where a nail gun isn't appropriate, I try to use a rawhide or wooden mallet (metal hammer with chisels -- not so good). I have managed to convince myself that their shock absorbing qualities help even though I know that the real advantage is that less force is used when working with these tools. I've been considering the addition of a dead blow hammer to my arsenal.

04-16-2012, 05:37 PM
hearing, as in hearing protection is in order when useing air/gas opperated power nailers, palm drivers. scalers. thinking a little bout it..protection shouldn't be limited to hearing alone.

04-18-2012, 01:03 PM
Since I haven't seen it here yet, I'll ask the question; what the heck are you doing using nails for anymore? Since the widespread availability of the drywall/deck type of screw, and all the related varients, I bet I don't use but a tiny handful of small trim size nails anymore. For almost all general construction purposes, I find I prefer to shoot screws rather than pound nails. For ease of assembly, and even more so ease of disassembly, the screws beat the heck out of nails. It's easier to keep things aligned while assembling them, and you're not beating the crap out of it while you're driveing the screw, unlike you are doing with a hammer. The screws will generally stay in and not pop up like nails will, which is a big plus in my book.

Switch to screws and a couple good power screwdrivers. The hammer is old technology.

I sympathise with your elbow pain. I tore or pulled something loose in mine years back, and it took 3 or 4 years for it to completely heal up.


David W Pratt
04-18-2012, 01:14 PM
Call the Trailblazers or the local University athletic dept. and ask for the baseball teams orthopedist. He will be the best and will be oriented toward keeping the players in the game.
Good luck.

04-18-2012, 01:30 PM
I'd stop hammering for three weeks (hoping it wouldn't become six months) and go see an orthopedic specialist. I suspect (from experience) that this is one of those things that caught early can be completely healed, and if not ... becomes perpetual. I was lucky decades ago and had a boss who made me go to the doctor. I did exercises for weeks and changed to wooden handled (and some fiberglass handled) hammers. All better, and has stayed that way.

Bill Mercer
04-19-2012, 02:30 PM
Thanks for the replies! I've been off the intertubes for a while so didn't respond. The hammering I was doing was 1) tapping nail heads into lofting to pick of section shapes, and 2) tacking together mold stock so I could bandsaw out two identical pieces at once. I've quit working on this for the last week; I'm going to get some short self-tapping woodscrews to hold the pieces of stock together and tap the nail heads in left handed on the lofting and hope for the best.

I've been back in contact with the physical therapist who helped me through my last two (non-boat related!) injuries; he gave me a set of stretching exercises last week and he's going to give me some strengthening work this week.

I've also found that lifting heavy, awkward objects hurts the next day, especially if I'm pulling them towards me.

04-19-2012, 10:49 PM
I got tennis elbow, the doc prescribed 500mg Naproxen twice a day, I took it for a while with dubious results, then got curious and went online and discovered that it is bad mojo if one has a heart condition such as mine, and that the Naproxen reduces the effectiveness of the blood pressure meds that the same doc had prescribed. (!) I am now learning how to be nice to my elbow: Pick up things with your palm up, not down, whenever you can. In hammering, the culprit is the backswing, take your time lifting the hammer up, but you can slam it down as hard as you want, which is good, because you want to take as few strokes as possible. Ice at the end of a work session, and exercise your wrist and forearm with a 10oz soup can when you aren't doing anything else. Getting old is not for weenies.... but better than the alternative...

wizbang 13
04-20-2012, 07:35 AM
Tapping nail heads for lofting???
Are you sure your elbows do not hurt from being down on your knees and elbows??
I can not even let my elbows touch the edge of this desk while typing!! They will hurt!

04-20-2012, 02:13 PM
Amazing how many doctors we have on this list! With the ability to diagnose without even seeing the patient. Amazing.

Joint pain is no joke. I got it in both shoulders from swimming. I stopped swimming, took up Pilates, and waited a year for the pain to go away.

wizbang 13
04-20-2012, 05:41 PM
I'm no Doctor, but healing is a hobby of mine, same as wood boats.
Chap came here to a wood boat forum for healing help.
He didn't come to a doctor forum to fix his boat.

04-20-2012, 07:33 PM

04-20-2012, 07:57 PM


Bill Mercer
04-21-2012, 04:16 PM
I'm building an 18' St. Lawrence river skiff, so the lofting is on a table on sawhorses--no crawling around on the floor for me!

Tapping nail heads for lofting???
Are you sure your elbows do not hurt from being down on your knees and elbows??
I can not even let my elbows touch the edge of this desk while typing!! They will hurt!

donald branscom
04-21-2012, 08:02 PM
First ...Go to the drug store and buy a tube of ASPERCREME. It WILL stop the pain.
OF all the white useless cremes- it is one that DOES work.

Second... Get a roll of fiberglass tape and put a band around your fore arm
a couple of inches down from the elbow. Do not make it too tight. If it is denting the skin it is too tight.
Put the first part on upside down so it does not stick to your arm.
Then put two or three wraps on it.
It has to be the fiberglass type tape so it will not expand. What happens is that the muscle
when used, tries to lift upwards instead of pulling in a straight line.
That is what keeps re injuring the attachment to the bone. You have to wear that all the time for a couple months. NOT kidding. You cannot just go buy one of those elastic things they sell because it stretches and allows the injury
to just keep repeating. Silly product.

Third.... start treating yourself to a nail gun.

04-23-2012, 04:32 PM
What do they make fiberglass tape for? Where do you buy it?

04-23-2012, 05:17 PM
Just had to add to this. I am a carpenter of more than 35 years and I swing a hammer almost daily. I can remember the craze in the late seventies was to use larger hammers such as the 28oz framers. I got into that too but realized it caused more elbow pain. I went back to a 16oz hammer like they used for a hundred years or so. I can drive a 16d nail faster with a 16oz than all of the strong guys with clubs (that is what I call the hammers with the large awkward head ), that have worked for me. The next hard lesson I learned is the handle material really matters. Wood is the best at absorbing shock. Of all the fancy titanium nitron $300.00 hammers a wood handle gives me the least pain at the end of a day. I have tried them all and would pay more for a hammer with a shock absorbing handle if it really worked. Air guns also give me more pain than a hammer. It is the recoil and the hand position used while operating it. I have air guns and they seem to be necessary to compete but I let the help use them.

Tom Robb
04-25-2012, 01:09 AM
My 18" long wood handle titanium head framing hammer is fairly easy on the arm. Avoiding the death grip and letting the hammer do the work seems to help, but then I don't do it for a living which would certainly agravate the arm.
Living past my use-by-date is a bitch from time to time.