Golfer’s elbow is a rather common condition for golfers, but beyond the name, few know much about it. We’re going to discuss everything you need to know about golfer’s elbow from the root causes to proper treatment. We’ll share a few tips on prevention, as well.
Golfer’s Elbow – What Is It?
The medical term for Golfer’s elbow is medial epicondylitis. It is tendinosis of the “medial epicondyle” or protrusion on the end of the long bone in the arm. It is almost the opposite of tennis elbow, something that affects the outside of the lateral epicondyle.
In short, the difference between tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow is where on the elbow the tendons are inflamed. Both involve inflammation or injuries to the tendons in the forearm connected to the bony bumps or protrusions on your elbow. Know that you don’t have to be a golfer to suffer from golfer’s elbow, though the sport is known for causing this repetitive stress injury – hence the name.
Symptoms of Golfer’s Elbow
The major symptoms of Golfer’s elbow are pain radiating from the elbow to your wrist or arm. It can be a constant ache in and around the affected tendons, or it could take the form of sharp pain whenever you’re performing activities that involve the affected joint. You could have pain anywhere from the elbow to the finger tips. The pain might come on gradually or occur suddenly, though sudden pain suggests a recent injury rather than a repetitive stress injury.
A good way to tell if you have golfer’s elbow is if the pain gets worse if you do certain things, namely swinging a golf club. Yes, that’s how it got its name. Golfer’s elbow can cause pain when you grip things or twist things. If you’re feeling pain in the elbow when you open a beer or pickle jar, that may be Golfer’s Elbow.
If there is numbness or tingling in your little fingers and ring fingers, it could be golfer’s elbow or carpal tunnel syndrome. Weakness in the hand or wrist can be a sign of golfer’s elbow, and it is certainly something to have evaluated by a doctor. Golfer’s elbow can cause pain when you flex your wrist. Making a fist might hurt, too.
The severity of Golfer’s Elbow can be determined via a Range of Motion or ROM assessment. A physical therapist or doctor could perform a ROM assessment, too, to determine if there are deficits that could lead to golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow, or both simultaneously. (Yes, you can have more than one condition at the same time.)
Golfer’s elbow should not be accompanied by a fever or the joint feeling hot. If this is the case, see a doctor immediately – but not for “golfer’s elbow”. It may be an infection of another sort, and that always needs to be addressed.
If your elbow looks deformed, there is something seriously wrong. Whether it is golfer’s elbow progressed to the point you have bone damage, severe arthritis or physical damage caused by something else, you need to see a doctor.
If you cannot bend the elbow at all, especially after some sort of injury, you need to seek medical attention. It is possible that golfer’s elbow has progressed to severe physical damage when you have these symptoms, but you never want to allow it to progress to that point.
Causes of Golfer’s Elbow
Golfer’s elbow is generally caused by overuse of particular tendons, causing the joint to become painful and inflamed. Note that you don’t have to play golf to suffer from Golfer’s Elbow; any set of motions that cause over-use of the affected soft tissues can cause the condition. The root cause is engaging in any activity that repeatedly twists or flexes down the wrist.
The most common cause is playing golf, though this could be caused by gardening, throwing a ball or repeated lifting. The odds of stress and inflammation go up with the force involved as well as the repetition. This means that taking a break from golfing to play racquetball will make the condition worse. Quitting golf to play softball, too, worsens things since you aren’t giving the over-used joint a break.
Know that anyone engaged in repetitive gripping and/or lifting activities can develop golfer’s elbow. Painters, plumbers and carpenters are prone to developing Golfer’s Elbow simply due to the nature of their jobs. Someone who works in these areas and then takes up golf is prone to developing the condition.
In fact, only a small percentage of people with the people with golfer’s elbow actually play golf. You’re as likely to run into this condition overdoing CrossFit or working as a handyman as by playing golf. For example, doing too many curls with the barbells can cause Golfer’s elbow, even if you’ve never touched a golf club.
You want to address the issue when you’re dealing with swelling and tenderness before it leads to stiffness in the elbow, weakness in the hands or wrist, or progresses to an inability to use the arm properly. Don’t assume that it is due to old age, carpal tunnel or something else. If you’re dealing with pain, especially progressive pain or deteriorating physical function, seek treatment. The inflammation can progress from mere inflammation to partial tears to full thickness tears.
Treatments for Golfer’s Elbow
The first step to proper treatment is proper diagnosis. Too many people mistake the dull ache as the onset of arthritis, when they really need to reduce the strain and use of the joint. Conversely, assuming it is Golfer’s elbow when you are developing arthritis means that your condition (and the associated joint damage) will worsen over time before you take medication to control it.
If the doctor diagnoses you with golfer’s elbow, you can put ice on the area to reduce inflammation. Don’t do this too much or you’ll interfere with proper circulation. You can take over the counter anti-inflammatory medications. If you’re using these treatments yourself and things don’t improve, consult with a medical professional. A cortisone injection may be in order.
If the doctor said to try these standard treatments and it doesn’t get better, go back for another assessment. Maybe the damage to the joint is more severe than you thought, or something else is wrong.
In other cases, you need physical therapy to treat the root cause of the condition, under-developed muscles or tendons. The problem may be traced to an under-treated injury, too. If the issue isn’t resolved after a year, surgery may be necessary. However, you should seek a second opinion if the doctor’s initial advice is surgery.
A more appropriate answer is immobilizing the joint with a split so you can’t continue straining the soft tissues as you try to go through your day. Know that you may need a wrist split in addition to an elbow splint. Be careful of applying a splint yourself; you don’t want to apply so much pressure that you cut off blood flow.
Ending all feeling in the joint may end the pain, but it damages the tissues in the long run. Athletic tape can be used in place of splinting, though it may not be enough in severe cases. Talk to your doctor to find out the right method for immobilizing the joint if that is warranted.
The doctor may advise you to do stretching exercises to reduce strain on the inflamed tendons. However, you should only perform stretches that the medical professional advises, since if you pick the wrong moves, you’re going to make things worse. Physical therapy can aid the recovery process, and in some cases, accelerate it. This is especially true if you’ve had to immobilize the joint for an extended period of time.
A fancy treatment reserved for professional athletes is “blood spinning” or the introduction of platelet rich plasma. For 99% of golfers, just making sure you aren’t cutting off blood flow to the joint and applying heat to the area after the pain has reduced is good enough. Stay away from braces and jewelry with magical stones, copper and energy anything.
Ultrasound and interferon are sometimes touted by chiropractors and other questionable medical professions. This is rarely ever going to help. Massage can help improve blood flow and pain but isn’t nearly as important as rest, pain reliever and immobilization if necessary. There are people who try acupuncture to manage the pain, but for many, you’re just trading one kind of pain for another.
Prevention of Golfer’s Elbow
Give it a rest. If you’re starting to feel aches and pains from playing, stop for the day and consider taking a break from the sport tomorrow. If you’ve been diagnosed with golfer’s elbow, you may need to give the wrist and elbow several weeks to recover.
Repeated forceful strain on the tendons causes Golfer’s Elbow. A good way to prevent this is not trying to do anything else that strains the joint except play golf. So if you play golf in the afternoon, don’t play tennis or racquetball that day or the next.If you spend ten minutes on the putting range, go ahead and play a round of golf.
If you spent two hours on the putting green, don’t try to fit in a round of golf. If your elbow hurts from playing golf, don’t make things worse by raking the yard or painting a room.
A good way to avoid Golfer’s Elbow is to learn how to play golf from a professional coach. Don’t assume that endlessly trying to hit balls will improve your game. You’re putting yourself at risk for an over-use injury.
If you aren’t taking that many swings, then the root cause of the golfer’s elbow is incorrect elbow extension, pronation, or supination or the extension and flexion of the wrist – or some combination of all of the above. In short, learn proper form and technique once you’ve recovered to prevent a recurrence of the injury.
In other cases, simply giving up on the lost cause can reduce the strain on your joints. For example, if you can’t hit the golf ball in ten swings, count it as a loss and move on. Your team mates will appreciate everyone moving on with the game, too.
You can reduce the strain on your elbow, too, if you learn how to hit the ball or the tee instead of the turf. Whatever you do, don’t make it worse by pounding the golf clubs on the ground in anger. You’ll make the green staff hate you, too, if you do this. Little things may reduce the strain on your elbow such as using a golf cart to carry around your bag instead of picking up and putting it down with the inflamed joint.
Not having to reach down to pick up water bottles and supplies helps, though that doesn’t do enough to relieve the strain if you’ve been told to truly take a break. Switching to a lighter club and balls could make things easier, but only after you have permission to return to the game.
If you like to bowl, try returning to the game with a lighter ball than before. Don’t return to the game sooner than the doctor’s OK, or you’ll re-injure the joint. Do not go faster than the medical experts say you can go.
How you play can increase the odds of developing the condition. Holding the grip too tight is one example. Holding the club grip the wrong way is another. Having a tightened fist while you’re swinging or having a fist held tight even when you aren’t playing golf is certainly a risk factor. For some people, buying a right-sized golf club or one with a soft, ergonomic handle may be an investment in their health.
However, this doesn’t preclude consulting with a professional golf trainer to make sure you’re not causing the Golfer’s elbow with poor form. If you’ve recovered from Golfer’s Elbow, consulting with a coach to get back into proper form is a good idea.
Exercise and stretch before you play. When you create a workout plan, strengthen the muscles in your forearm to reduce the risk of golfer’s elbow. If the doctor wants you to perform certain stretches to loosen tendons and strengthen muscles, learn how to do them right. Then do them at the right time. And don’t overdo the stretches or you’ll end up with a different type of repetitive stress injury.
You may need to evaluate your lifestyle to reduce the activities that strain your elbows. For example, a poor ergonomic setup at your computer workstation could strain your elbows, putting you at risk for Golfer’s elbow when you’re away from the computer.
If you ever needed an excuse to watch TV or get voice dictation software, you have it. Then again, maybe you’d be better off going for a walk instead of lifting weights to burn calories. If you’ve been told to stop straining an elbow, lowering the amount of weight you’re lifting while doing curls certainly counts as prevention.
If you have golfer’s elbow, you may want to hire someone else to fix all that stuff that needs fixing around your house. Repeatedly gripping a screwdriver or hammer all weekend doesn’t give your elbow a break. Buying ergonomic tools and taking frequent breaks helps but isn’t a cure-all. In short, don’t take a break from golf by becoming a weekend do-it-yourselfer … or painting a portrait.
We’re going to say that regularly applying ice and heat to joints is not prevention. That is an attempt to manage damage to your body that really needs to heal. If you’re constantly popping pain reliever, something is wrong, and you need to go back to the doctor.
The only exception to this is applying heat to a joint before beginning exercises that the physical therapist has recommended. Here, you’re relaxing the soft tissue before using them, and this reduces the risk of damage. Just don’t overdo the exercises or you’ll make things worse.
If your condition was brought on by weight lifting, you should learn the right form for weight lifting. Then slowly work your way up on the weights. Don’t try to push yourself on the number of reps. Remember that things like pulling down ropes holding weights and doing curls holding weights are straining the same joints in similar ways.
If you’re going to do a variety of exercises, truly do a variety of exercises. If you’ve strained your elbows, spend more time working on your legs, back and chest.
Another important thing is if you’ve pulled a muscle in your forearm lifting weights, don’t even try to do reps until it is healed, then ease into a routine of gradually increasing weight.
Suppose you’ve been given a workout routine or stretching routine to keep your body in shape. Here’s a not-so-secret tip – keep it up. If you’ve been told to do these stretches or exercises two or three times a day, do them two and three times a day. Don’t skip two days and try to get 10 reps in. You could end up damaging the tissues you’re trying to rebuild.
If you haven’t maintained your schedule, start with the basic set of moves once per day, then work up to two and three times a day. If you’re supposed to do it several times a week, resume the original schedule. Don’t try to work out every single day as if that will make up for the time you missed, because that will strain the joints.