Even if you're not out on the green or hitting the courts every weekend, golfer's elbow or tennis elbow could still be to blame for the pain in your arm. Because both conditions are a response to repetitive stress on the elbow, you can develop golfer's or tennis elbow from an everyday task as straightforward as typing. These injuries are not uncommon, either, with 50% of all tennis players suffering from tennis elbow at some point in their career.
So how can you know whether you have elbow pain from tennis elbow or golfer's elbow? To clear up confusion around the two injuries, we'll look at the difference between golfer's elbow and tennis elbow, what causes golfer's elbow and tennis elbow, common-sense treatments for each and some preventive tips for elbow injury. If you have elbow pain from golf, tennis or anything else, this article will help you understand your recovery options.
What's the Difference Between Golfer's Elbow and Tennis Elbow?
Both golfer's elbow and tennis elbow are overuse injuries, which means they stem from repetitive trauma around a specific area. The results of such repeated impact are microscopic tears in the tissue, swelling, inflammation and pain around the elbow. In this sense, golfer's elbow and tennis elbow are two different forms of elbow tendonitis.
This definition means that despite their descriptive names, you can get golfer's or tennis elbow from just about any activity that uses the elbow excessively. These injuries can even occur from repetitive wrist movements, such as the work mechanics and plumbers do.
Here's what causes tennis elbow or golfer's elbow most frequently.
- Racket sports: Of course, overuse or improper technique during tennis or other sports that require a racket can cause injury to the tendon. Using an undersized or too-heavy racket can also result in injury.
- Throwing sports: Other sports that involve extending the elbow, such as golfing, archery, football and javelin throwing, can lead to golfer's elbow. An especially frequent cause of the injury is improper pitching technique in baseball or softball.
- Weight training: Another realm in which improper technique can result in an elbow overuse injury is weightlifting. Practicing poor form, such as curling the wrists during a biceps exercise, overloads the muscles and tendons around the elbow, causing them to tear.
- Occupational demands: Some fields, such as construction, plumbing, painting or carpentry, involve forceful, repetitive movements of the wrist or arm that can lead to tennis or golfer's elbow.
- Everyday uses: Repetitive tasks including typing, meal prep, raking or gardening increase the risk of an elbow overuse injury. Even leisurely hobbies like knitting or playing an instrument can result in tennis or golfer's elbow.
Because they are both forms of elbow tendonitis, it can be challenging to spot the difference between golfer's elbow and tennis elbow. The essential detail to keep in mind when comparing tennis elbow vs. golfer's elbow is location. If you feel pain on the outside of the elbow, it's tennis elbow, whereas if you feel pain on the inside of the elbow, it's golfer's elbow.
These are the three notable differences between tennis elbow and golfer's elbow.
- Location: The main difference between tennis and golfer's elbow is the location of the inflammation. Tennis elbow links with inflammation around the outside the elbow and forearm areas, while golfer's area comes with inflammation on the inner side of the arm and elbow.
- Affected tendon: The difference in pain location comes with a distinction in which tendon has experienced the injury. Tennis elbow indicates damage to the outside tendon attached to the muscles that stretch your wrist backward and enable the fingers to spread. In contrast, golfer's elbow affects the inside tendon connected with the muscles used for flexing the wrist and contracting fingers, such as for gripping things.
- Symptoms: Although the side effects of tennis and golfer's elbow are similar, they occur on opposite sides of the elbow and arm. Tennis elbow causes pain and tenderness on the outside of the elbow, while the discomfort that comes with golfer's elbow occurs on the inside of the elbow and down the arm. Golfer's elbow can also include numbness or tingling in the fingers.
What Is Golfer's Elbow?
Golfer's elbow is a painful condition of inflammation and microtears in the tendons that connect to the medial epicondyle, the bony prominence on the inside of the elbow. Because golfer's elbow is tendonitis, "inflammation of the tendons," around the medial epicondyle, health care professionals often call it medial epicondylitis. The tendons attached to the medial epicondyle directly impact the mobility of the muscles responsible for rotating the wrist, contracting the fingers and gripping.
Someone with golfer's elbow will most likely experience some or all these symptoms.
- Pain and tenderness: The inner side of the elbow is painful or tender to touch. This pain may extend along the inner side of the forearm and worsen with specific motions.
- Numbness or tingling: Golfer's elbow may bring sensations of numbness or tingling, which may radiate into one or more fingers. This condition most commonly affects the ring and little fingers.
- Aching: The inner elbow may experience an achy pain during or after activity.
- Weakness: Along with numbness or tingling, the hands and wrists may become weaker than usual.
- Stiffness: The elbow may feel stiff, resulting in pain when making a fist.
The symptoms associated with golfer's elbow can occur suddenly or gradually increase. Typically, golfer's elbow begins with pain and tenderness and progresses to further symptoms if left untreated. Some movements, such as swinging a golf club, could worsen the pain and exacerbate the tendonitis.
In addition to frequent golfing, these are the risk factors for developing golfer's elbow.
- Age: Those 40 or older have a higher chance of getting golfer's elbow.
- Weight: Obesity increases the risk of golfer's elbow.
- Smoking: Golfer's elbow is more prevalent in smokers.
- Repetitive activity: Repetitive arm movements for at least two hours a day raise the risk of golfer's elbow.
How to Treat Golfer's Elbow
If you suspect you have golfer's elbow, it's critical to have it treated promptly, so the symptoms don't worsen. Although milder symptoms may be manageable on your own, you should consult a professional to avoid more severe golfer's elbow. Your physician will be able to tell you the proper procedures for handling your condition.
Most likely, your doctor will start by recommending conservative golfer's elbow treatment options like the following.
- Restricted activity: A health care provider will probably advise you to limit use of your arm and take a break from activities that worsen symptoms.
- Ice: Putting ice packs on the affected area will help reduce the swelling and pain. Apply ice over a towel, never directly on the skin.
- Stretches: Stretching exercises that focus on the forearm muscles can help reduce the strain on inflamed elbow tendons.
- Anti-inflammatory medications: Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications can minimize pain and inflammation around the area.
- Orthotics: A splint or brace could decrease the stress on injured tissues.
- Physical therapy: Physical therapy can assist and accelerate recovery by providing stretches and strengthening exercises for the elbow.
- Pulsed ultrasound: Therapists often use this non-invasive treatment to increase blood flow to the injured tendons and break up scar tissue to promote healing.
- Occupational therapy: Slightly different from physical therapy, occupational therapy works to improve the ease of performing daily activities, which may benefit those whose line of work puts them at a higher risk of developing golfer's elbow.
If your golfer's elbow is more acute and conservative treatments are not alleviating the pain, your physician may suggest a more intensive treatment. When you consult with your physician about your worsening golfer's elbow, these could be the recommended treatment options.
- Cortisone injections: Health care providers sometimes use these powerful steroid injections to reduce inflammation and provide pain relief for severe tendonitis.
- Platelet-rich plasma therapy: This blood-spinning therapy uses the body's natural healing system to enhance its injury response.
- Surgery: If other therapies don't work, surgery to repair the damaged tendon is a largely successful procedure for golfer's elbow.
What Is Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow is a different type of tendonitis that affects the outside of the elbow. Also known as lateral epicondylitis, tennis elbow is a painful condition of inflammation and microtears in the tendons connected to the lateral epicondyle, the bony prominence on the elbow's outer side. The lateral epicondyle affects the muscles used for extending the wrist backward and straightening fingers.
As an overuse injury, tennis elbow stems from repeated forearm muscle contractions. Repetitive trauma to the tendons could result in a range of symptoms that may radiate from the elbow down the forearm. Tennis elbow typically starts as a pain or burning in the elbow that may gradually worsen, especially with specific movements that involve extending or straightening the elbow.
Common signs of a case of tennis elbow include the following.
- Tenderness: Tennis elbow is often sore or tender to the touch.
- Weak grip: Difficulty when trying to grasp or lift objects may be an indication of tennis elbow.
- Wrist pain: Pain due to tennis elbow may flare up during or after using the wrist.
- Shooting pain: Sharp twinges during activities that engage the elbow may be a result of tennis elbow.
- Numbness or tingling: Fingers may feel numb or begin to tingle.
- Aching: Tennis elbow may have a dull ache even when resting.
Tennis elbow and its symptoms are most prevalent in those who regularly participate in movements that tax the elbow tendons. These include sports like tennis, occupations like carpentry or hobbies like gardening. Frequent engagement in these activities dramatically contributes to the risk of tennis elbow, but there are other factors.
Five main variables affect the likelihood of developing tennis elbow.
- Age: Although anyone can get tennis elbow, it is most common in adults between 30 and 50.
- Past injury: Tennis elbow pain can sometimes be a result of a past injury or tendon trauma. A direct block to the elbow could lead to further swelling of the elbow tendon and subsequent degeneration.
- Sports: As its name suggests, tennis elbow is often attributable to participation in specific sports that involve swinging at a ball, like tennis, baseball or softball. Practicing poor form during these sports greatly increases the chances of tennis elbow.
- Occupation: Jobs that require repetitive motions of the arm or wrist, such as professional painters, butchers or chefs, are more likely to lead to tennis elbow.
- Genetics: Like many medical conditions, an element of genetics plays a role in tennis elbow. Some people's tendons are naturally less durable and prone to issues like tennis elbow at an earlier age.
How to Treat Tennis Elbow
Because tennis elbow is a degenerative condition, rather than an acute injury, it can progressively worsen if left untreated. Tennis elbow could lead to difficulty completing everyday tasks such as opening a door, brushing your teeth or gripping a coffee mug. Fortunately, your physician can recommend various conservative treatment options to help prevent tennis elbow from becoming a major issue.
These are some of the conservative treatment options your physician is likely to suggest.
- Rest: Limit your daily participation in activities that increase stress on the tendons and bring on tennis elbow symptoms.
- Avoiding some activities: Steer clear of physical activities that exacerbate tennis elbow.
- Ice: Applying ice packs to the elbow for 20 to 30 minutes every three or four hours can help reduce both swelling and pain in the area.
- Anti-inflammatory medications: Taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help manage the pain and swelling caused by tennis elbow.
- Elbow brace: Placing the elbow in a brace or splint may help decrease any stress placed on the injured tissues, as well as protect the damaged tendon from further strain.
- Taping the forearm: Taping the forearm area to provide additional muscle fiber support may be necessary for continued participation in sports or specific occupational movements.
- Massage: Massage and other muscle-stimulating techniques, such as pulsed ultrasound, can boost your body's blood flow and healing process, stimulating a quicker natural recovery.
- Physical therapy: Attending physical therapy will help stretch and strengthen the forearm muscles to minimize the pressure put on elbow tendons and alleviate pain. Range-of-motion exercises will help increase flexibility while decreasing stiffness.
For more severe cases of tennis elbow, these conservative treatments may not be enough. When you visit your physician, they will thoroughly evaluate your elbow and review your medical history. The physical examination may include X-rays and an MRI or electromyogram to check for any nerve compression.
If your physician determines your tennis elbow needs more intensive treatment, you might take these next steps.
- Dry needling: An acupuncture-like procedure, dry needling involves piercing the tendon in critical places to release tightness, ease inflammation and promote healing.
- Cortisone injection: A steroid injection like cortisone can help control inflammation and pain due to tennis elbow, but isn't a long-term fix.
- Surgery: For severe cases of tennis elbow, surgery may be necessary. Elbow surgery will repair the tendon as well as remove any scar tissue or bone spurs.
How to Avoid Elbow Injuries
Although there are plenty of effective treatments for both tennis elbow and golfer's elbow, you can take some proactive measures to avoid ever having an elbow injury in the first place. Making some modifications to your usual exercise or work routines can spare you from potential tendon damage. Practicing preventive measures can also help prevent a reoccurrence of elbow injuries due to falling back into old habits.
To prevent elbow pain during sports, work or daily activities, follow the five steps below.
1. Rest and Recover
Naturally, the best way to avoid an overuse injury is to not overuse specific tendons or muscle groups. That means knowing when to take a break and giving your body ample time to rest and recover between workouts. To prevent severe tendonitis, take a break after the first sign of tennis or golfer's elbow. If you can't fully take time off from a particular activity, try to limit the number of specific repetitive movements you do during it.
Proper recovery also includes gradually increasing your activity level when trying something new, so you don't shock or overly stress your body. Instead of jumping directly into intensive training, let your body build up to achieving your ultimate goals. For example, try not to dramatically increase the amount of weight you lift from one day to the next.
2. Always Warm Up
Another way to avoid shocking your muscles is to always warm up before engaging in physical activity. Be sure to properly stretch and get your blood flowing before playing a sport that involves repetitive arm movements like tennis or squash. For lifting, this could mean starting your sessions with some lighter reps until you feel warm enough to start lifting heavier.
3. Practice Proper Form
Form is essential to injury prevention. Using the correct technique will save you from overloading smaller muscles and unnecessarily straining your elbow tendons. Be sure to ask a coach or other instructor whether you're following safe form, especially if you're attempting a new activity.
Along with form, proper equipment is crucial to elbow injury prevention. For golf enthusiasts, consider upgrading your old clubs to lighter graphite ones. And if you're a tennis player, make sure you use a racket that fits you, and remember that heavier rackets may increase the risk of elbow issues.
4. Strengthen Your Forearm
Increasing the strength of your forearm muscles can help prevent tennis and golfer's elbow by providing more support to your arm as a whole. Exercises as simple as squeezing a tennis ball can help your muscles absorb the energy of sudden stress better. Strengthening your wrist, arm, back and shoulder muscles will also help protect your elbow even more. Ask your physical therapist about suitable exercises for building up the appropriate muscle groups.
5. Try Different Activities
To prevent repetition and straining your elbow tendons, try mixing up your fitness program. Incorporate different types of training activities that don't require the use of your elbow as much to give your arm a break. Allowing your body to try a different activity will also help strengthen other, lesser-used muscles and build overall fitness. If you want to stick with your usual routine, try alternating hands so you don't overuse one side of your body.
If You Suffer From Elbow Pain, Contact Dr. Mufaddal Gombera Today
Whether you think you have golfer's elbow or tennis elbow, schedule an appointment with Dr. Mufaddal Gombera to begin healing your elbow pain today. As a board-certified orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, Dr. Gombera knows how to provide patients with the expert care they need to return to their daily activities as quickly as possible. To avoid surgery and speed patients' recovery, Dr. Gombera focuses on using the latest advanced treatments and minimally invasive techniques.
To get back to your active, pain-free lifestyle, book an appointment online at Dr. Gombera's practice in the heart of Houston, Fondren Orthopedic Group and Texas Orthopedic Hospital, or call 713-794-3457 for more information.