As you follow through on a golf swing, your grip tightens and your wrist curves, engaging the muscles of your wrist and forearm. As you swing again and again, you strain the same parts of your arm and elbow.
Over time, the inside of your elbow may start to throb with occasional very sharp, stabbing pain. The pain may come from the tendon that attaches the muscles in your wrist to your arm bone at the elbow.
This condition is called “golfer’s elbow,” or medial epicondylitis, though the injury isn’t limited to golfing alone. Any repetitive action that uses the wrists, like turning a screwdriver or pitching a ball, can cause or aggravate it.
Who’s At Risk for Golfer’s Elbow?
G. Russell Huffman, MD, MPH, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and expert in shoulder and elbow surgery with Rothman Orthopaedics, says golfer’s elbow is typically caused by repeated activity that involves turning the wrist and flexing the elbow.
“In golfers, I see it most commonly in those who tend to hook the ball rather than slice it. It’s also seen in rowers, tennis players who hit their forehand with a lot of topspin and in weightlifters,” Dr. Huffman says.
Treatment and Prevention Strategies
No matter what causes their pain, a person with golfer’s elbow generally wants two things: an end to the pain and the ability to return to their hobby, sport or job.
In most cases, a combination of intermittent icing to reduce swelling, topical anti-inflammatory medication, stretching and rest to allow are enough to reduce pain and allow the tendon to heal so there can be a gradual return to full activity.
In the long-term, forearm strengthening exercises can prevent the pain from returning. There are several other causes of inner elbow pain beyond golfer’s elbow that your physician can evaluate if these measures don’t work.
In rare cases of golfer’s elbow, injections and/or surgery are used to remove damaged tissue and allow the tendon to heal.
Surgery is a very rare intervention. “Less than 10 percent of patients with this problem require surgery,” Dr. Huffman says.
Do You Have Golfer’s Elbow?
The first thing to consider is where you’re hurting. If the pain comes from the inside part of the elbow, it could be golfer’s elbow. If it comes from the other side of your elbow, near the point, it could be a related condition, sometimes called tennis elbow or lateral epicondylitis.
The pain of golfer’s elbow might radiate from the elbow along the inside of your forearm and may feel worse with grasping, shaking hands or lifting objects.
Other symptoms may include a weak grip, stiffness, numbness or tenderness at the inner elbow (painful to the touch).
What Can Help?
Dr. Huffman says there are several lines of attack to treat golfer’s elbow pain.
The first is rest, and in many cases avoiding the repetitive activity that caused the pain for a couple of weeks will relieve it.
If rest alone doesn’t work, a gentle ice massage, over-the-counter 1% diclofenac gel or an over-the-counter force brace or sleeve may be used. In cases in which the pain persists, a prescription for occupational therapy for muscle strengthening and stretching and massage of the injury has been shown to promote recovery.
If these measures haven’t helped, there are some minimally invasive treatments that can be performed. Occasionally, a corticosteroid injection may be recommended at the discretion of your physician. If chosen, cortisone injections should be limited to one or two at most.
Micro-needling under ultrasound guidance is a technique in which the damaged tendon is removed to promote tendon healing. An alternative that shows promising results includes platelet-rich plasma injections, which is when the physician uses the healing properties of your own cells to facilitate healing the tendon in your elbow. However, this procedure, while promising, may not be covered by insurance.
When the above methods don’t work, or advanced imaging such as an MRI shows a large tear in the tendon, surgery may be needed. It involves removing the damaged tendon, repairing and occasionally grafting the tendon to restore full function and eliminate pain.
After the pain goes away — or, ideally, before it even starts — golfers, weight lifters and others can take steps to prevent the pain altogether. Dr. Huffman explains, “There are several general ways to prevent the pain of golfer’s elbow: ensure your grip is not too tight on the golf club and use proper mechanics; build forearm strength through gentle targeted exercises; routinely stretch the muscles that flex your wrist; use ice for 10 to 20 minutes after activity to reduce swelling; and take an over-the-counter oral or topical anti-inflammatory medication on active days.
Many athletes and hobbyists can give their elbow tendon a break by changing their form. Weightlifters can keep their elbows closer to their bodies and rowers can change their grip.
Forging the Future of Orthopedic Care
Thank you so much to Dr. Huffman for providing his valuable insights and expertise on how to prevent and treat “golfer’s elbow.” Together, AdventHealth and Rothman Orthopedics are revolutionizing care and recovery. We’re moving healing from sports injuries forward, so nothing holds you back.
To learn more about our partnership, click here.
About Dr. Huffman
Dr. G. Russell Huffman is an Orlando native and received his medical degree from the Duke University School of Medicine with honors, and a Master’s in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. He went on to complete an orthopedic surgery residency at the University of California in San Francisco, followed by fellowships in sports, shoulder and elbow surgery at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA. He received additional training at the Mayo Clinic.
As a highly experienced clinician, Dr. Huffman has served as an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania for 16 years. He served as the Director of their Shoulder and Elbow Fellowship for more than a decade, helping train the next generation of shoulder and elbow surgeons in surgical solutions to complex shoulder and elbow problems.
Dr. Huffman received both clinical and teaching awards during his time at Penn, has been rated Top Doctor in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs and developed several surgical techniques. He authored over one hundred combined book chapters and peer-reviewed scientific publications. He has taught, volunteered and lectured regionally, nationally and internationally.