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Golfer’s Elbow

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

Finally! The sun is out, the birds are singing, and the grass is green – it’s golf weather again. And golf weather isn’t just for golfers; fans of tennis, baseball/softball, and running are also rejoicing. Like most people who enjoy a recreational round of golf, I’m too busy to make it to the links as often as I’d like, but I’m thankful it’s not an injury that’s keeping me from picking up my clubs. For many “weekend warriors,” however, injuries are an all too common occurrence.

“Golfer’s elbow,” along with its cousins “tennis elbow” and “pitchers’ elbow,” is a form of tendonitis (meaning inflammation of the tendon). In the case of golfers’ elbow, this tendonitis has a specific name – medial epicondylitis, so called for inflammation of the tendon that attaches at the medial epicondyle (the bony bump on the inside of the elbow). Medial epicondylitis is not limited to golfers; anyone who engages in activities that require gripping, swinging, or other repetitive wrist and elbow movements (such as racquetball, badminton, painting, typing, throwing, knitting, etc.) can put themselves at risk for this condition. It most commonly occurs in men aged 20-49 years.

Caused by damage to the tendon that controls movement in your forearm, wrist, hand, and fingers, golfer’s elbow is characterized by pain, weakness, and numbness/tingling that gets worse with activity. Because surgery is rarely needed, this condition can usually be effectively managed with the help of your physical therapist. But be patient; as with other types of tendonitis, golfer’s elbow requires time and rest to heal properly, and it may take several months of proper care for you to become completely symptom free. If you return to activity too soon, you may exacerbate the condition and run the risk of developing chronic medial epicondylitis (meaning you will likely experience these symptoms to some degree for the rest of your life).

The number one aspect of treating golfer’s elbow is rest. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, rest does not mean complete inactivity, however. Identify your “trigger activities” (be they golf, tennis, playing catch, or chopping vegetables for dinner) and then eliminate them as much as possible. Instead, focus on gentle stretching and strengthening exercises to build up the muscles and tendons, thereby reducing the risk of recurring injury. Your physical therapist can give you specifics on these areas.

For pain relief, a gentle massage coupled with inflammation reduction techniques (employing ice and/or heat) can be very effective. With your doctor’s approval, you may also use a mild, over-the-counter pain reliever. Some professionals advocate the injection of corticosteroids to treat golfer’s elbow. I do not personally recommend this, however, as negative complications frequently arise from the use of corticosteroids. In addition, injections into the elbow are risky as the ulnar nerve can easily be damaged in the process.

Once your symptoms have improved, prevention of re-injury is critical. First, return to your activities gradually. You wouldn’t go out and run a marathon without first preparing your body to do so; golf and other similar activities are really no different. You must work your way back into “golf shape.” Secondly, warm up before your activity. Five to ten minutes of walking followed by stretching should do the trick. Thirdly, return to the basics. Often it is our incorrect form when swinging a golf club or tennis racket or when throwing a fast ball that leads to problems such as golfer’s elbow. Incorrect form puts unneeded stress on certain muscles and joints. Evaluate your techniques (employ a coach or instructor if needed) and make any necessary adjustments. Lastly, keeping your body in general good condition with ongoing strength and cardio training will go a long way in preventing injuries of all types.

It’s tough to let a perfect golf day go by because of an irritating overuse injury, but giving your elbow the rest it needs will help you make many more tee times in the long run.

Don’t let elbow pain keep you from your favorite game. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Elbow Pain Assessment!