What Is Golfer’s Elbow?
Golfer’s elbow—also known as medial epicondylitis—is a condition that causes pain on the inside of the arm near the elbow. It is an overuse injury of the tendons that connect the forearm to the upper arm bone (humerus) at a bony outcrop called the medial epicondyle.
The condition is similar to tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis, which affects the outside of the elbow rather than the inside. While golf and throwing a ball both can cause golfer’s elbow, many other activities can also cause the painful condition.
Causes and Risk Factors
Golfer’s elbow is the result of the tendons of the forearm muscles rubbing against the medial epicondyle. These allow the wrist to flex and rotate. Over time, the rubbing causes the tendons to become irritated and inflamed. Any activity that requires frequent bending and straightening the arm can lead to golfer’s elbow, including:
- Computer use
- Racket sports like tennis or racquetball
- Throwing sports like baseball or football
- Weight training
- Yard work
Tendons tend to become weak and degrade over time, so golfer’s elbow may be more likely to affect people older than 40. Obesity and smoking are also risk factors.
Pain is the primary symptom of golfer’s elbow. It can be felt:
- On the inside of the elbow
- When shaking hands
- When squeezing something
- When making a twisting motion, such as turning a doorknob
Other symptoms of golfer’s elbow can include:
- Numbness or tingling radiating down the arm and into the fingers
- Stiffness of the elbow and reduced range of motion
- Weakness in the hands and wrists
Healthcare providers usually can make a diagnosis of golfer’s elbow with a medical history and physical exam. The medical history will help doctors determine what may have been causing the tendon irritation. During a physical exam, doctors will manipulate the elbow in various ways and directions while noting signs and symptoms.
An X-ray, while it will not show damage to soft tissue like tendons, may sometimes be useful in ruling out other sources of elbow pain. Other imaging studies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are rarely necessary for confirming golfer’s elbow (or ruling out other conditions).
Golfer’s elbow can almost always be effectively managed with conservative treatments. When feeling pain, the RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression, elevation) should be implemented immediately. The affected arm should be rested, ice and a compression sleeve should be applied, and the arm should be elevated above the heart.
Other conservative treatments can include:
- Activity modification
- Avoid activities that aggravate symptoms
- Modify sports technique (golf swing, tennis serves, etc.) to relieve pain
- Elbow brace
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
- Physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the elbow
In the rare case that surgery is necessary, there are options. One is tendon debridement, which means that a surgeon removes damaged tendon tissue. Another option is tendon repair, which can be helpful in situations where there is a high grade tendon tear that warrants reattachments. These surgeries are usually minimally invasive and can be done on an outpatient basis, meaning the patient may leave the hospital or surgery center within a few hours after surgery.
To avoid developing golfer’s elbow:
- Keep the wrists stable and aligned when lifting objects (including weights)
- Rest the arm—take breaks from activities and do not perform activities too often if possible
- Strengthen forearm muscles
- Stretch the forearms before engaging in any activity that involves repeated bending and straightening of the arm
- Use proper equipment and technique when playing sports that may cause or aggravate the condition
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