What is Golfer's Elbow? The Symptoms & Treatment Options

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 17, 2022
Contributed by Jamie Page
Physiotherapist, Salford University

Golfer grimacing in pain whilst clutching at his elbow

In Australia, elbow pain is common among manual labourers and young athletes. According to Safe Work Australia, elbow pain conditions make up approximately 10% of all upper limb problems.[1] Approximately 0.4% of the population will experience golfer's elbow, which equates to 100,000 Australians.[2]

Like tennis elbow, many people with golfer’s elbow do not play golf. Instead, occupations and activities, such as carpentry, catering, throwing athletes (e.g. baseball, javelin) and rock climbing can lead to an increased risk of developing golfer’s elbow.

Read on to understand what you should know about golfer’s elbow; the risk factors, treatment options and expected recovery time.

What is Golfer’s Elbow?

Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis) is a painful condition that leads to pain in the inner part of the elbow. Typically, the tendons in this region become overused, especially by repetitive motions of the wrist and arm. The tendon can continue breaking down if it continues to be overloaded.

What are the symptoms of golfer’s elbow?

The symptoms of golfer's elbow include pain and tenderness at the elbow, usually on the inner side. People may also experience; weakness of the forearm and hand (grip strength), elbow joint stiffness and numbness or tingling in the forearm.

Common symptoms of golfer’s elbow

  • Forearm Pain

  • Tenderness

  • Stiffness of the elbow

  • Weak grip strength

  • Numbness or tingling sensation of the forearms and hands.

What causes golfer’s elbow?

Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis) is caused by overuse and damage to the muscles and tendons on the inside of the elbow that control your wrist and hand. This occurs mainly with repetitive movements and activities that stress the elbow.

Common causes of golfer’s elbow

  • Racket sports

  • Throwing sports

  • Plumbing or carpentry

  • Improper weight lifting techniques

  • Poor warm-up and conditioning

Sports that increase the risk of golfer’s elbow

  • Golf

  • Tennis

  • Archery

  • Javelin Throw

  • Baseball

How is golfer’s elbow diagnosed?

The short answer is that golfer's elbow requires a medical diagnosis.

There are several options available when it comes to diagnosing your elbow pain as golfer’s elbow. One of the more common and most recommended by Australian GPs is an assessment from a physiotherapist.

Golfer’s elbow, aka medial epicondylalgia, is painful and can be frustrating. It can limit you from doing your activities such as working and participating in sports. More importantly, it can last for a long time and result in other issues if left untreated.

Physiotherapists are rehabilitation experts when it comes to pain and injuries. They are high-qualified medical professionals that diagnose and treat elbow pain and tendon problems such as golfer’s elbow.

A physiotherapy assessment is similar to visiting a GP. The process starts with a consultation where you will get the time to discuss all relevant issues relating to your elbow pain.

Your physiotherapist will ask vital questions about your health, sports activities and lifestyle to provide a background for your condition. This is similar to having a mini-interview about your overall health status.

After establishing the background of your condition, your physiotherapist will perform specific physical tests and movement screens to determine the best possible cause of your pain and rule out other conditions. Your physiotherapist will also check for other issues that may contribute to your injury.

The initial evaluation typically lasts for about 30 to 60 minutes. Your physiotherapist will then create a specific treatment plan based on your assessment to help you recover from injury.

From here, your physiotherapist will give you the details of your treatment program; this will include:

  • Number of treatment sessions

  • List of exercises you need to do at home

  • Strategies to manage the pain and to prevent worsening of the condition

  • Timeline of your total recovery

  • Specific recommendations.

How is golfer’s elbow treated?

There are several options when it comes to treating golfer’s elbow. One of the more common, and the treatment option that is referred by Australian GPs the most is physiotherapy.

Golfer’s elbow can be painful and may affect the quality of your life. Ignoring the early signs of golfer’s elbow can cause further damage to the forearm tendons and risk worsening of the condition.

Golfer’s elbow is an injury that physiotherapists come across regularly, and the process of treating it is straightforward. Following an initial consultation, the physiotherapist will be in the best position to determine your treatment plan.

A combination of effective treatment protocols such as manual therapy, pain modalities, and specific movement exercises will be given to you by your physiotherapist. Your treatment will focus on decreasing your pain and improving the strength of your forearm muscles.

Your physiotherapist will discuss each treatment and make sure that you better understand your condition after your initial evaluation.

Depending on the severity of your golfer’s elbow, a physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments:

  • Therapeutic Exercises - Exercises used to restore the proper function of the muscles, tendons and joints to allow pain-free movements.

  • Stretching Exercises - Used to increase the length of the muscles, decrease muscle tightness and pain.

  • Manual Therapy - Hands-on treatment technique used to improve your range of motion and improve mobility.

  • Soft Tissue Massage - Hands-on techniques to relax the muscles and relieve tension and reduce pain.

  • Dry Needling - Specialised technique used to alleviate tension and reduce pain

  • Cryotherapy - A cold modality used to decrease pain and manage inflammation

  • Kinesio Taping - Specialised taping to improve pain and inhibit muscle spasms.

  • Advice and education: Professional advice to help you manage the pain and improve your recovery.

A typical physiotherapy session with your local physiotherapist will last anywhere between 30-60 minutes. It is not uncommon for patients to feel the benefits in just one session.

Next step: Creating a treatment plan for you

Following your visit, your physiotherapist will guide you step by step on your road to recovery. You will be given a tailored treatment program based on your lifestyle to maximise your healing and get you back to what you love to do.

Self-care for golfer’s elbow

If you think you have golfer’s elbow, here are the best things you can do and avoid.

Things to do:

  • Rest

Golfer’s elbow is caused by excessive use of your forearm and wrist. Allowing your body to rest and giving it time to heal are vital parts of the recovery process.

  • Use hot compress / Ice compress

During the initial phase of your injury, you may notice some swelling and tenderness on your elbow or forearm. You can use ice or cold compress to limit inflammation and decrease your pain. Do this for 10 to 15 minutes.

Suppose you are having pain around your elbow for a long time. You can use heat to stimulate blood flow and allow the natural exchange of nutrients to facilitate tissue repair. This will also relax your forearm muscles and will relieve stiffness. Use a hot compress for 20 minutes to ease the pain.

  • Gentle stretching

Stretching your forearm muscles will help prevent muscle tightness and will keep your normal range of motion.

  • Keep moving

Controlled movements of your elbow and wrist within your pain limits will help you prevent complications. If your injury is chronic and has been affecting you for months, there is a high chance that you may unconsciously avoid using the affected arm, which may result in muscle weakness and more pain.

Things to avoid:

  • Avoid activities that worsen the pain

Take rest and consult a physiotherapist as soon as possible. Avoid excessive use of your forearm, especially if there are signs of swelling. Do not lift heavy objects using your affected arm.

Do I need a specialist or surgery?

It is best to communicate with your physiotherapist to discuss other options and further assess if symptoms persist after a series of physiotherapy sessions.

Golfer’s elbow usually responds to conservative treatments and does not require diagnostic imaging. However, if underlying conditions are suspected, an X-ray or MRI can be done to rule out other causes of your pain.

After a course of well-performed physiotherapy, patients with persistent pain and disability are candidates for clinical re-evaluation and surgery.

A good surgeon will always collaborate with your physiotherapist to develop the best possible solution to your condition and coordinate treatment goals even after the surgery.

What is the recovery time / prognosis for golfer’s elbow?

Ultimately, recovery time is dependent on your proactiveness to seek professional treatment and the severity of your elbow pain and injury.

Recovery from golfer’s elbow may take about 3 to 6 months, depending on the severity of the injury. Symptoms may also worsen and prolong your recovery if left untreated.

Physiotherapy can accelerate your recovery and help you manage the symptoms of golfer’s elbow. The key to your healing is patience and consistency with your treatment program.

Most of the time, patients feel immediate improvement after the initial session. However, each patient needs to complete their specific treatment program and comply with their home exercises to maximise their recovery.

Important factors in recovery include:

  • Sticking to your rehabilitation program and regularly exercising

  • Resuming your sports activity gradually

  • Paying attention to pain, and resting as necessary.

Can golfer’s elbow be prevented?

Guaranteeing prevention can be impossible; however there are some things you can do to reduce the likelihood. These tips for prevention are also useful treatment options if you are already in pain.

  • Exercises: Strengthening your forearm muscles will make your tendons more resistant to stress and tension. This will prevent future injuries and make you more efficient in using your muscle strength in sports.

  • Stretch regularly: Stretching will help you maintain the flexibility of your muscles and the normal range of motion of your joints.

  • Avoid prolonged activity: Take appropriate rest time and phase your activities.

Outlook and the main takeaways

There are a range of potential causes, symptoms and even severities of golfer’s elbow, and the most important thing to do is listen to your body. Pain is a message reminding you that there is a problem and you need to do something about it. Book an appointment with a physiotherapist today to start your recovery process!

Anatomy of the elbow

Your elbow joint comprises three different bones: the upper arm bone (humerus) and the two bones of your forearm (radius and ulna). At the bottom of the humerus, you will find bony bumps called epicondyles, where tendons and several forearm muscles are attached. The inside part of the epicondyle of the elbow is called the medial epicondyle.

Golfer’s elbow or medial epicondylitis primarily affects the forearm muscles that are responsible for bending your wrist and griping.

Muscles that are attached to the medial epicondyle:

  • Pronator teres

  • Flexor carpi radialis

  • Palmaris longus

  • Flexor digitorum superficialis

  • Flexor carpi ulnaris.

Most golfer’s elbow injuries affect the flexor carpi radialis and pronator teres.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on March 17, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 17, 2022
Contributed by Jamie Page
Physiotherapist, Salford University
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on March 17, 2022
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