Technically known as medial epicondylitis, golfer’s elbow is a common condition of the elbow.
Golfer’s elbow is an inflammation of the tendons that attach your forearm muscles to the inside of the bone at your elbow.
The forearm muscles and tendons become damaged from overuse — repeating the same motions again and again. This leads to pain and tenderness on the inside of the elbow.
Cause & Symptoms
Overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm and elbow are the most common reason people develop golfer’s elbow. Repeating some types of activities over and over again can put too much strain on the elbow tendons. These activities are not necessarily high-level sports competition. Shoveling, gardening, and hammering nails can all cause the pain of golfer’s elbow. Swimmers who try to pick up speed by powering their arm through the water can also strain the flexor tendon at the elbow.
In some cases, the symptoms of golfer’s elbow are due to inflammation. In an acute injury, the body undergoes an inflammatory response. Special inflammatory cells make their way to the injured tissues to help them heal. Conditions that involve inflammation are indicated by -itis on the end of the word. For example, inflammation in a tendon is called tendonitis. Inflammation around the medial epicondyle is called medial epicondylitis.
However, golfer’s elbow often is not caused by inflammation. Rather, it is a problem within the cells of the tendon. Doctors call this condition tendonosis. In tendonosis, wear and tear is thought to lead to tissue degeneration. A degenerated tendon usually has an abnormal arrangement of collagen fibers.
Instead of inflammatory cells, the body produces a type of cells called fibroblasts. When this happens, the collagen loses its strength. It becomes fragile and can break or be easily injured. Each time the collagen breaks down, the body responds by forming scar tissue in the tendon. Eventually, the tendon becomes thickened from extra scar tissue.
The main symptom of golfer’s elbow is tenderness and pain at the medial epicondyle of the elbow. Pain usually starts at the medial epicondyle and may spread down the forearm. Bending your wrist, twisting your forearm down, or grasping objects can make the pain worse. You may feel less strength when grasping items or squeezing your hand into a fist.
One of the best ways to avoid elbow problems is to strengthen your forearm muscles and slow your golf swing so that there will be less shock in the arm when the ball is hit.
The following simple exercises can help build up your forearm muscles and help you avoid golfer’s elbow.
For best results, do these exercises during the off-season, as well.
- Squeeze a tennis ball. Squeezing an old tennis ball for 5 minutes at a time is a simple, effective exercise that will strengthen your forearm muscles.
- Wrist curls. Use a lightweight dumbbell. Lower the weight to the end of your fingers, and then curl the weight back into your palm, followed by curling up your wrist to lift the weight an inch or two higher. Perform 10 repetitions with one arm, and then repeat with the other arm.Reverse wrist curls. Use a lightweight dumbbell. Place your hands in front of you, palm side down. Using your wrist, lift the weight up and down. Hold the arm that you are exercising above your elbow with your other hand in order to limit the motion to your forearm. Perform 10 repetitions with one arm, and then repeat with the other arm.
Approximately 80% to 95% of patients have success with nonsurgical treatment.
- Rest. The first step toward recovery is to give your arm proper rest. This means that you will have to stop participation in sports or heavy work activities for several weeks.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines. Drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen reduce pain and swelling.
- Wrist stretching exercise with elbow extended.
- Equipment check. If you participate in a racquet sport, your doctor may encourage you to have your equipment checked for proper fit. Stiffer racquets and looser-strung racquets often can reduce the stress on the forearm, which means that the forearm muscles do not have to work as hard. If you use an oversized racquet, changing to a smaller head may help prevent symptoms from recurring.
- Physical therapy. Specific exercises are helpful for strengthening the muscles of the forearm. Your therapist may also perform ultrasound, ice massage, or muscle-stimulating techniques to improve muscle healing.
- Brace. Using a brace centered over the back of your forearm may also help relieve symptoms of tennis elbow. This can reduce symptoms by resting the muscles and tendons.
- Counterforce brace.
- Steroid injections. Steroids, such as cortisone, are very effective anti-inflammatory medicines. Your doctor may decide to inject your damaged muscle with a steroid to relieve your symptoms.
- Extracorporeal shock wave therapy. Shock wave therapy sends sound waves to the elbow. These sound waves create “microtrauma” that promote the body’s natural healing processes. Shock wave therapy is considered experimental by many doctors, but some sources show it can be effective.
If your symptoms do not respond after 6 to 12 months of nonsurgical treatments, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Most surgical procedures for tennis elbow involve removing diseased muscle and reattaching healthy muscle back to bone.
The right surgical approach for you will depend on a range of factors. These include the scope of your injury, your general health, and your personal needs. Talk with your doctor about the options. Discuss the results your doctor has had, and any risks associated with each procedure.
Open surgery. The most common approach to tennis elbow repair is open surgery. This involves making an incision over the elbow.
Open surgery is usually performed as an outpatient surgery. It rarely requires an overnight stay at the hospital.
Arthroscopic surgery. Tennis elbow can also be repaired using tiny instruments and small incisions. Like open surgery, this is a same-day or outpatient procedure.