What to do about golf and tennis elbow

If you play a lot of tennis or golf, there's a good chance you've experienced elbow pain from time to time. The repetitive motion of these sports can put wear and tear on your body, causing inflammation, a weaker grip and limited range of motion.

"This is an overuse injury we see in athletes or people who do repetitive work, whether as a hobby or for their profession," said Sarim Ahmed, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and independent member of the HonorHealth Medical Staff.

Tennis or golf elbow involves the muscles and tendons of your forearm. Your forearm muscles are attached to the bone by tendons, which extend your wrist and fingers. When you repeat the same movement in your wrist, elbow and hand frequently, your tendon begins to degenerate, causing this condition.

If you suffer from tennis or golf elbow, you may first notice a sharp sensation while participating in the activity. You may also have a dull aching or burning pain that's always there when you move your wrist.

However, just because you participate in activities that involve repetitive motion doesn't mean you'll develop tennis or golf elbow. In fact, you may play golf once a week and suffer from golf elbow, but your friend may play daily and never suffer from the condition. This may be due to differences in your anatomy and other variables.

"People who are prone to tendonitis get it more often," Dr. Ahmed said.

Rheumatoid arthritis and simple wear and tear may be contributing factors.

Prevention and treatment options

Unfortunately, there's not a lot you can do to prevent tennis or golf elbow other than avoiding the repetitive motion. And, that's not exactly appealing if you're an avid athlete. Even if you discontinue the activity, it can take up to two years for your body to heal and your symptoms to stop, Dr. Ahmed said.

Instead, he advises his patients to modify the way they play golf and tennis. This includes:

  • Controlling the movement of your wrist with a brace to give the tendons a break.
  • Avoiding intense practice sessions when you hit more balls over a brief period of time.
  • Taking longer breaks between tennis matches or rounds of golf.

If you suffer from acute symptoms, you can:

  • Use an ice pack on the affected area.
  • Use a topical anti-inflammatory cream or gel.
  • Take oral anti-inflammatory medication.
  • Get physical therapy to strengthen your muscles, which will help stabilize the tendons.

If these conservative measures don't provide relief, other treatment options include:

  • Steroid injections.
  • Platelet-rich plasma treatment, which involves drawing your blood, separating and concentrating the platelets and injecting them into the injury site.
  • Surgery, including:
    • Open procedures.
    • Orthoscopic surgery, which is minimally invasive.
    • The Tenex procedure, which uses ultrasound imaging to view and remove damaged tendon tissue.

When to see your doctor

If you've tried at-home treatments such as ice packs and anti-inflammatory medications without relief, it's time to see an orthopedic surgeon. Treatment is more likely to be effective when you get help for tennis or golf elbow early, so don't put it off for too long.

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