Tennis Elbow v. Golfer’s Elbow (Epicondylitis)

The terms “tennis elbow” and “golfer’s elbow” are commonly confused between one another. Quite often, people think that they mean the same thing. Other times, people may have heard of one, but not the other. However, the most common misconception is that you can only get tennis and golfer’s elbow from playing tennis or golf.

In the end, tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow are different conditions with similar causes and symptoms. Today, we will dive into further detail differentiating the two conditions, along with their causes, signs, symptoms, treatment methods, and estimated recovery times.

The Difference

Tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow are both forms of Epicondylitis. Epicondylitis refers to the inflammation of tendons that attach to the elbow, associated with repetitive forearm and elbow activities. The key difference here is that when tennis elbow is present, the lateral, or outside epicondyle is affected, while on the other hand, golfer’s elbow affects the medial, or inside epicondyle. While the two condition’s names hint towards a sports-related injury, over 90% of cases are not actually sports-related.

Tennis Elbow – Causes, signs, and symptoms

Tennis elbow is most commonly seen in adults between the ages of 30 and 50. The condition results from the overuse of the wrist extensors – the muscles on the back of your forearm responsible for partial control of your wrist. Generally, tennis elbow can be caused by any activity that overuses the wrist extensors regularly. Below, we’ve listed a few activities that we commonly find to be linked to the condition:

  • Gardening
  • Baseball
  • Painting or drawing
  • Working with tools
  • Activities that involve gripping
  • A traumatic injury or direct blow to the elbow

The signs and symptoms of tennis elbow are often quite noticeable. If the condition is present, you may experience pain and tenderness along the outside of your elbow (lateral elbow). In some cases, the pain can travel down your forearm to your hand, resulting in a weakened grip and sometimes numbness in the fingers and hand. If you notice these symptoms present, it is important to make sure you avoid activities that accentuate your discomfort in order to prevent the condition from worsening. Some activities that contribute to or worsen the pain in tennis elbow are:

  • Lifting objects
  • Turning a doorknob
  • Twisting fingers
  • Extending your fingers
  • Making a fist
  • Touching the outer elbow

Golfer’s Elbow – Causes, signs, and symptoms

On the flip side, golfer’s elbow happens to be the opposite of tennis elbow, although both are caused by repetition and overuse. The key difference here is that golfer’s elbow is caused by overuse of the wrist flexors, rather than the wrist extensors (tennis elbow). Your wrist flexors are muscles located on the front, medial section of your forearm – responsible for partial control of the wrist. When the wrist flexors are overused, they typically cause pain on the inside of the elbow. Similar to tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow doesn’t only come from golf. The condition is caused by any activity that calls for repetitive flexing of the wrist, such as:

  • Shoveling
  • Weightlifting
  • Bowling
  • Painting
  • Activities involving gripping
  • Construction
  • Working on an assembly line

Adults who are obese, smoke, and are above the age of 40 are typically at higher risk for developing golfer’s elbow.

The signs and symptoms of golfer’s elbow should be fairly easy to notice. The most common symptoms include pain on the inside of the elbow when lifting the wrist or hand, making a fist, or twisting the forearm. In addition, the affected area may be swollen and tender to the touch. In prolonged cases, individuals may experience stiffness in the elbow or weakness and numbing in the hands or wrist.

doctor examining an elbow

Diagnosis – Tennis Elbow

The diagnosis process starts off with your doctor performing a physical exam. During this, he/she will apply pressure to the affected area and ask for you to move your elbow, wrist, and fingers in various directions. Typically, your medical history coupled with a physical examination should give your doctor everything he/she needs to evaluate whether or not tennis elbow is present. In cases where your doctor suspects a potential underlying condition to be present, he/she may administer an X-ray or other type of imaging test to get a more detailed look.

Diagnosis – Golfer’s Elbow

Similar to tennis elbow, the diagnosis process for golfer’s elbow typically consists of a review of your medical history followed by a physical exam. In most cases, your doctor will ask for you to move your elbow, wrist, and fingers in certain directions, along with applying pressure to the affected area to evaluate pain and stiffness. In some cases, an X-ray may be administered to help the doctor rule out other causes of elbow pain, such as fractures and arthritis. In special cases, your doctor may order an MRI to get a more detailed look at the elbow.

Treatment – Tennis Elbow

In most cases, tennis elbow recovers on its own. However, if over-the-counter pain medications and other self-care methods don’t seem to be working, it is likely that your doctor will suggest physical therapy. During physical therapy, your therapist will aim to gradually stretch and strengthen your muscles over time. Additionally, he/she may suggest a brace or forearm strap to reduce stress on the injured tissue.

If your condition results from playing tennis, your doctor may suggest having an expert evaluate your form and technique. From there, he/she may recommend some adjustments and modifications to your form in order to reduce stress on the injured tissue.

In the most severe of cases, your doctor may recommend injections, an ultrasonic tenotomy, or a surgery.

Treatment – Golfer’s Elbow

The first step in treating golfer’s elbow is to avoid any activities that cause pain to the affected area. In addition, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen sodium (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the affected area. During therapy, you will be advised to get lots of rest, ice the affected area 3-4 times a day, and potentially wear a brace.

After completing therapy, you should be able to return to your everyday activities. Once the pain is gone, it is important to practice proper arm movement. Whether you play a sport or work with tools all day, we recommend working with an instructor to make sure your technique is properly adjusted.

In most cases, surgery for golfer’s elbow is extremely rare. However, if your signs and symptoms don’t seem to be responding to the treatment methods listed above after 6-12 months, then a surgery might be necessary.

Recovery / Healing

In most cases, physical therapy is all you will need to recover from tennis or golfer’s elbow. We find that recovery generally takes anywhere from 6-12 weeks for both conditions. In addition, we find that 80-85% of cases improve significantly within 12 months without any surgery. As you recover, it is important to make sure you stretch, perform light strengthening exercises, and practice proper ergonomics.

Aside from recovery, it is equally as important to make sure you are taking the proper steps to prevent these conditions from recurring. When in attempt to prevent tennis or golfer’s elbow, the most important thing to take note of is how much repetitive activity you are engaging in. Additionally, any light strengthening, stretching, or form of massage to the elbow will be a great help in preventing these conditions from recurring.   

JIS Orthopedics Can Diagnose & Treat Your Injury, And Help You Recover

Are you experiencing symptoms of tennis or golfer’s elbow? Here at JIS Orthopedics, we’d be happy to provide you with a proper diagnosis of your condition and help get your body back on track so you can do the things you love. Contact us today!

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