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Try Physiotherapy for Golfer’s Elbow

How Physiotherapists Treat Golfer’s Elbow
by Jonathan Blood-Smyth

Golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylitis) is not confined to golfers, but occurs in many sportsmen and women, with racquet sports the most common causes. Other sports where golfer’s elbow occurs are in bowlers in cricket, archers and weightlifters. This and the more common tennis elbow are tendinopathies, overuse syndromes where there is no significant inflammation but a pathological alteration in the body of the tendon at the painful site.

The medial epicondyle is the bone prominence on the inside of the elbow where the forearm and rotatory muscle originate from. The muscles become tendinous near the bone and the tendon inserts into the bone to anchor the muscles. This area is where the pain occurs but no inflammatory process, rather a degenerative one. As the elbow is stresses by forces which would tend to push the elbow out into “knock elbow”, the tendon takes a lot of stress and changes occur.

High stresses occur in the cocking phase of a throw and during the subsequent acceleration, and in the golf swing from high backswing down to near the ball strike. Golfers are more likely to have their dominant hand affected and tennis players who use heavy topspin in their forehands are also more at risk.

The medial epicondyle is the bone prominence on the inside of the elbow where the forearm and rotatory muscle originate from. The muscles become tendinous near the bone and the tendon inserts into the bone to anchor the muscles. This area is where the pain occurs.and scientific work has not shown an inflammatory process but degenerative one. As the elbow is stresses by forces which would tend to push the elbow out into “knock elbow”, the tendon takes a lot of stress and changes occur. High stresses occur in the cocking phase of a throw and during the subsequent acceleration, and in the golf swing from high backswing down to near the ball strike. Golfers are more likely to have their dominant hand affected and tennis players who use heavy topspin in their forehands are also more at risk.

Pain and ache over the front of the medial epicondyle is the typical symptom, worse with repeated flexion of the wrist and improved with resting. Shoulder, elbow, forearm or hand pain can occur, with weakness or pins and needles in the lower arm. Physiotherapy examination includes the bony tendon insertions, the elbow joints and the muscles, with palpation of the “funny bone” area behind the elbow where the ulnar nerve lies. Nerve involvement can give weakness in the forearm muscles and sensory symptoms, so an exclusion neurological examination is performed by the physio.

The main treatment of golfer’s elbow is conservative, including anti-inflammatories, wrist and forearm splinting, corticosteroid injection and physiotherapy. Modifying the provoking activity is a first line of management, making patient education about the condition and the eliciting factors vital. An example is modifying the golf swing mechanics to avoid setting the problem off continually. The patient is taught to avoid aggravating positions and activities, such as leaning on the elbow if there is nerve involvement.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used in the initial acute phase to reduce pain and inflammation along with avoiding painful movements, use of ice, gentle stretches, friction massage and ultrasound. As the problem settles and becomes sub acute the aims change to improving flexibility by stretching, increasing strength and normal activities. A forearm brace may also be used or a wrist brace to rest the wrist muscles. Once the problem is chronic the programme continues with reduced use of the splint and re-introduction of sporting activities.

Correction of sporting technique, such as the golf swing, is best achieved by engaging a professional instructor who can also advise on stretches, fitness work and muscle strengthening. Athletes should warm up well before sport and stretch effectively afterwards, choosing good technique and selection of appropriate equipment. Doctors and therapists may need to monitor patients, especially athletes, very carefully as they tend to continue to perform through the pain.

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