Golfer’s elbow, or medial epicondylitis, is a repetitive strain injury that could happen to any sportsperson.
You squeeze a rubber ball and feel a pain on the little bone on the inside of your elbow. Particularly if you’re a golfer, or sportsperson, that pain could mean you have a condition called medial epicondylitis, also known as golfer’s elbow. Luckily, you can get it treated, or even prevent it from happening in the first place.
“Golfer’s elbow is actually a misleading name,” says Dr Konrad von Hagen, a sports physician and Senior Medical Officer for pro golf’s Sunshine Tour. “I actually see more tennis players with golfer’s elbow, and more golfers with tennis elbow. The former occurs on the inside of the elbow and the latter on the outside.”
And this condition is one that any golfer – or tennis player – should take seriously, advises Dr Darren Green, Mediclinic Event Chief Medical Officer. “It’s quite a significant injury that can prevent you from playing your sport for several months if it goes untreated,” he cautions.
Zilké Kolenić, a biokineticist based at Mediclinic Constantiaberg, explains that golfer’s elbow can be caused by any repetitive activity requiring a tight grip and wrist movement, like a golf swing or lifting weights. “You may even get it from repeated painting or using tools like screwdrivers and hammers,” she adds.
Treatment typically starts with establishing the cause of the injury. “Seeing as it is usually due to repetitive movement of the elbow and forearm, rest, and avoiding the movement causing the injury, is very important,” says Kolenić. “Overuse injuries are often due to a weakness or imbalance of the muscles surrounding the joint. In these cases, we prescribe rehab exercises to strengthen the shoulder, forearm and wrist muscles that don’t replicate the aggravating movement or cause pain or discomfort.”
Treatment could also include physiotherapy, anti-inflammatories, rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) therapy, and a change in technique.
“If it becomes chronic, we might look at options like shockwaves or even surgery,” says Dr Von Hagen. “It’s caused by overuse, so the key is to listen to your doctor, stop aggravating the injury, and get it treated. I’ve had patients who have chosen to continue playing with it, and who have then sat with golfer’s elbow for nine or ten months. If it continues to go untreated you may even require surgery.”
If the injury is caused by lifting weights, the best advice to avoid this injury is not to lift too heavy or too much too soon, says Kolenić. “It’s important to build up your strength gradually, and to make sure you don’t focus only on one muscle or muscle group. In doing this, you run the risk of developing muscle imbalances that can lead to other injuries.”
Another important aspect of prevention is early identification, explains Dr Green. If you experience stiffness in your elbow, or tenderness on the inner side of your forearm when you make a fist or swing a golf club, seek medical help. If the diagnosis is golfer’s elbow, be sure to rest up – and see a healthcare professional who can advise you on changing your technique.
“You can aggravate the injury if you don’t rest for long enough, as prescribed by your healthcare professional, and if you return too soon to the movement or activity that caused the pain in the first place,” Kolenić cautions.