What causes golfers elbow?

Golfer’s elbow is the most common name of medial epicondylitis. Doctors also know it as epicondylopathy, which is basically a pathology of the epicondyle, a bony structure in the elbow. The pain in this ailment is located on the inside of the elbow and usually radiates to the forearm. Though it is commonly known as Golfer’s elbow, you don’t actually need to play golf to get this problem. So, what exactly is the cause of this condition?

What is the cause of a golfer’s elbow?

Golfer players and people who never played golf can suffer from medial epicondylitis or Golfer’s elbow. It usually affects people between 40 and 60 years old, both males and females. It is an overuse injury resulting from repetitive movements and strain, traditionally associated with gripping movements or constantly rotating the arm and flexing the wrist.

So, if your job or day-to-day activities involve bending the wrist, gripping, and swinging, and you do this very often and repeatedly, you can endure micro-tears in the elbow tendons that overlap and cause a golfer’s elbow over time.

If you have risk factors for Golfer’s elbow and engage in this type of movement, the chance of a golfer’s elbow is even higher. The most important risk factors that increase the likelihood of this condition include:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Performing repetitive movements for 2 hours a day or more
  • Carrying loads of over 20 kilograms
  • Athletes or people who frequently practice golf, but also tennis, baseball, and bowling

Is Golfer’s elbow the same as tennis elbow?

As noted above, people who practice tennis can also have a golfer’s elbow, which may be confusing if you know another condition called tennis elbow. This condition is the cousin of Golfer’s elbow because it is very similar, but definitely not the same.

They do have a few similar aspects. For example, they are both injuries caused by repetitive movements that involve the wrist and the arms. These repetitive motions cause microscopic lesions to tendons that attach to your elbow, and these microscopic lesions become worse as they overlap. There’s significant inflammation, and the lesion can ultimately cause tears and other tendon problems with considerable pain that starts very mild and becomes worse over time. The treatment options are also very similar.

But then, what is the difference?

  • The location of the problem: The main difference lies in the location of the problem or the inflamed area in the elbow. They are both located nearby, but tennis elbow problems are caused by inflammation and microtears on the outside of the elbow. Golfer’s elbow has the same mechanism, but it is located on the inside of the elbow and sometimes on the forearm’s inner part.
  • Affected tendon: As noted above, Golfer’s elbow features a problem in the epicondyle, and there’s a tendon right there, called medial epicondyle tendon. It connects your elbow with the forearm muscles you use when contracting your fingers and flexing your wrist. This tendon is fundamental to control your grip and bend your wrist. In contrast, the tendon affected in tennis elbow is called lateral epicondyle tendon. It is located on the outside of the elbow and used to stretch the wrist to the back and spread the fingers instead of flexing them.
  • Symptoms: Once again, Golfer’s elbow feels similar to a tennis elbow, but located on opposite sides. The most common tennis elbow symptoms include pain and tenderness, and they are located on the outside of the elbow. In contrast, a golfer’s elbow pain is located on the inside of the elbow. It does not only cause pain and tenderness. It is also associated with tingling and numbness in your fingers. Pain can also be spread or radiated to the forearm.

Recommendations and solutions for Golfer’s elbow

The symptoms in Golfer’s elbow usually worsen over time, and they take some time to settle. You can recover faster depending on your condition’s severity, and if you’re avoiding the activities that trigger Golfer’s pain.

10 Best Self-Treatments for Golfer's Elbow (Medial Epicondylitis)

What can you do at home to help your symptoms? Start by making some lifestyle and activity modifications to reduce the repetitive movements that caused Golfer’s elbow in the first place. You can evaluate your own symptoms and which movements trigger or aggravate your pain. Avoid these movements and talk to your occupational therapist if they are a part of your current job. Try these activity modifications:

  • Instead of gripping to lift a light object, take it with your palm upwards
  • Change the grip size in everyday tools, rackets, and other objects as much as possible. By increasing the grip size of these tools, your strain and pain will be reduced.
  • If you use a racket or heavy tool, consider finding one with a reduced weight
  • Instead of using the wrist and the hand for certain movements, opt for larger muscles to perform a similar motion, especially the shoulders and lifting the elbow
  • Reduce the time you spend in a repetitive motion. Take frequent breaks.

Ice is an essential tool for home pain management, and you can use ice in a bag or wrapped in a towel. You can leave the ice for 10 to 15 minutes until the area feels numb and then remove the ice until the skin returns to its normal temperature. You can repeat the same cold therapy several times a day, especially after repetitive motions.

In most cases, painkillers are enough to control the symptoms. However, suppose your symptoms are severe and difficult to handle. In that case, your doctor may recommend corticosteroid injections to relieve pain for some time or surgery in particular patients that do not respond to any other type of therapy.

References:

Kiel, J., & Kaiser, K. (2020). Golfers Elbow. StatPearls [Internet].

O’Dwyer, K. J., & Howie, C. R. (1995). Medial epicondylitis of the elbow. International orthopaedics19(2), 69-71.

McMurtrie, A., & Watts, A. C. (2012). (vi) Tennis elbow and Golfer’s elbow. Orthopaedics and Trauma26(5), 337-344.

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