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Golfer’s Elbow

Golfer’s elbow is a condition that causes pain on the inner side of your elbow, where the tendons of your forearm muscles attach to the bony bump on the inside of your elbow. The pain may spread into your forearm and wrist.

Golfer’s elbow is similar to tennis elbow. But it occurs on the inside, rather than the outside, of your elbow. And it’s not limited to golfers. Tennis players and others who repeatedly use their wrists or clench their fingers also can develop golfer’s elbow.

The pain of golfer’s elbow doesn’t have to keep you off the course or away from your favorite activities. With rest and appropriate treatment, you can get back into the swing of things.

Symptoms

Golfer’s elbow is characterized by:

  • Pain and tenderness on the inner side of your elbow. Sometimes the pain extends along the inner side of your forearm.
  • Stiffness. Your elbow may feel stiff, and it may hurt to make a fist.
  • Weakness. You may have weakness in your hands and wrists.
  • Numbness or tingling. Many people with golfer’s elbow experience numbness or a tingling sensation that radiates into one or more fingers — usually the ring and little fingers.

The pain of golfer’s elbow may appear suddenly or gradually. The pain may get worse when you:

  • Swing a golf club or racket
  • Squeeze or pitch a ball
  • Shake hands
  • Turn a doorknob
  • Lift weights
  • Pick up something with your palm down
  • Flex your wrist

When to see a doctor
Consult your doctor if rest, ice and over-the-counter pain relievers don’t ease your elbow pain and tenderness. Seek immediate care if:

  • Your elbow is hot and inflamed and you have a fever
  • You can’t bend your elbow
  • Your elbow looks deformed
  • You suspect you’ve broken a bone

Causes

Golfer’s elbow, also known as medial epicondylitis, is caused by damage to the muscles and tendons that control your wrist and fingers. The damage is typically related to excess or repetitive stress — especially forceful wrist and finger motions. Improper lifting, throwing or hitting, as well as too little warm-up or poor conditioning, also can contribute to Golfer’s elbow.

Many activities can lead to golfer’s elbow, including:

  • Golf. Gripping or swinging the clubs incorrectly can take a toll on your muscles and tendons.
  • Racket sports. Excessive topspin can hurt your elbow. Using a racket that’s too small or heavy also can lead to injury.
  • Throwing sports. Improper pitching technique in baseball or softball can be another culprit. Football, archery and javelin throwing also can cause golfer’s elbow.
  • Weight training. Lifting weights using improper technique, such as curling the wrists during a biceps exercise, can lead to overload of the elbow muscles and tendons.
  • Other activities. Any activity that causes you to repeatedly bend and straighten your elbow can cause golfer’s elbow. This includes activities such as painting, raking, hammering, chopping wood, using a computer, doing assembly-line work and cooking. A day or two of yardwork or cooking for company usually won’t cause golfer’s elbow, though. The activity generally needs to be done for more than an hour a day on many days to cause a problem.

Complications

Left untreated, golfer’s elbow can cause:

  • Chronic elbow pain
  • A limited range of motion
  • A lasting, fixed bend (contracture) in your elbow

Tests and Diagnosis

Golfer’s elbow is usually diagnosed based on your medical history and a physical exam. To evaluate pain and stiffness, the doctor may apply pressure to the affected area or ask you to move your elbow, wrist and fingers in various ways.

An X-ray can help the doctor rule out other possible causes of elbow pain, such as a fracture or arthritis. Rarely, more comprehensive imaging studies — such as magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) — are performed.

Treatments

The sooner you begin treatment, the sooner you’ll be able to return to your usual activities.

  • Rest. Put your golf game or other repetitive activities on hold until the pain is gone. If you return to activity too soon, you may make it worse.
  • Ice the affected area. Apply ice packs to your elbow for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, three to four times a day for several days. To protect your skin, wrap the ice packs in a thin towel. It may also help to massage the inner elbow with ice for five minutes at a time, two to three times a day.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Try ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), naproxen (Aleve, others) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).
  • Stretch and strengthen the affected area. Your doctor may suggest specific stretching and strengthening exercises. Physical or occupational therapy can be helpful too.
  • Reduce the load on your elbow. Wrap your elbow with an elastic bandage or use a forearm strap. And remember to maintain a rigid wrist position during all lifting activities.
  • Consider other medications. If over-the-counter pain relievers aren’t effective, your doctor may recommend a cortisone injection to reduce pain and swelling. These injections usually provide only short-term pain relief.
  • Gradually return to your usual activities. When you’re no longer in pain, practice the arm motions of your sport or activity. Review your golf or tennis swing with an instructor and make adjustments if needed.
  • Ask your doctor when surgery is appropriate. Surgery is seldom necessary. But if your signs and symptoms don’t respond to conservative treatment in six to 12 months, surgery may be an option.

Most people will get better with rest, ice and pain relievers. Depending on the severity of your condition, the pain may linger for several months — even if you take it easy and precisely follow instructions on exercising your arm. Sometimes the pain returns or becomes chronic.

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