When Should I Worry About...

Golfer's Elbow: How to Relieve Inner Elbow Pain

Dec. 27, 2023 - Katie McCallum

Your elbows might not be top of mind when thinking about the joints you use the most — unless you're dealing with pain in the area, that is. Acutely felt during gripping, twisting or lifting, elbow pain can make even the simplest tasks challenging.

Tennis elbow is the most well-known cause of elbow pain. It occurs when tendonitis develops and leads to pain on the outside of the elbow. But what about when that's not where you're feeling the pain?

"Golfer's elbow, also called medial epicondylitis, is similar to tennis elbow in that it's also tendonitis," says Dr. Chia Wu, a Houston Methodist orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hand and upper extremity surgery. "The difference is that it leads to inner elbow pain, which patients will often say hurts most when lifting with an underhand grip."

It's not an injury that's immediately obvious. Instead, it's the type of pain that gradually worsens over time, eventually interfering with your daily life.

Contrary to what its name may imply, you don't have to be a golfer to develop golfer's elbow. Baseball pitchers are also prone to the injury, for instance. But Dr. Wu says that most people who experience golfer's elbow don't play either sport.

What is golfer's elbow?

The elbow is a crucial joint used to perform many tasks. When the inner area of the joint becomes stressed by activity, golfer's elbow can develop.

"The inner elbow is where the flexor tendons of the fingers and the wrist attach to the upper forearm to allow for a range of motion when gripping, lifting and pulling," explains Dr. Wu. "This area of attachment is very small and can be exposed to a lot of pressure. When there's a concentration of stress there, it can lead to inflammation, also called tendonitis, and even tissue degeneration."

Most of the time, golfer's elbow is related to overuse — that is, the condition develops from frequently stressing the inside of the elbow. The term derives from how the finish of a golfer's swing can place a lot of pressure on the inner elbow. The motion and force used to throw a pitch can do the same.

"But most of the cases we see actually aren't sports related," says Dr. Wu. "People who perform manual labor for their job are more commonly affected by golfer's elbow, since they're often performing repetitive activities that involve the fingers, wrist and forearm. This can lead to overuse."

A sharp increase in repetitive activity can trigger golfer's elbow as well. It's why new moms, holding their baby in a way that stresses the inner elbow, sometimes experience the condition.

How is golfer's elbow treated?

Fortunately, golfer's elbow tends to improve on its own, though this takes both time and attention.

"Golfer's elbow treatment mainly focuses on stretches," says Dr. Wu. "These stretching exercises can be performed either at home or through formal physical therapy, whichever is preferred. Some people like the dedicated guidance a physical therapist provides."

Wearing an elbow brace can help support the joint as it heals. In addition, icing the area and taking anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce the inflammation that causes pain. Your doctor will recommend the anti-inflammatory that works best for you, based on your medical history and other factors.

With these measures in place, golfer's elbow can take anywhere from six weeks to six months or more to heal.

When to see a doctor about pain in the inner elbow

It's not uncommon to deal with achy joints now and then, so when does inner elbow pain warrant a doctor's attention?

"Any time elbow pain persists for more than two weeks, it's good to get evaluated," recommends Dr. Wu. "Golfer's elbow isn't a problem that requires immediate treatment — you're not going to do any permanent damage by delaying care — but the sooner you come in, the sooner we can start treatment and help you get some relief."

Additionally, it's important to receive an accurate diagnosis. The elbow is a relatively small joint, and it's sometimes hard for a layperson to differentiate inner elbow pain from outer elbow pain. A specialist can help distinguish between golfer's elbow and tennis elbow. While the two are treated fairly similarly, knowing which it is helps determine the stretches most beneficial to the joint healing and the activity modifications to alleviate pain in the short run.

It's also important to rule out more serious causes of elbow pain, like fractures and ligament tears.

Lastly, it's important to follow up with your doctor if the conservative methods of treating golfer's elbow aren't working for you after several months.

"There are other treatments we can consider, such as anti-inflammatory injections and, if needed, surgery," says Dr. Wu. "Most patients heal without surgical intervention, but surgery is an option for those who have failed nonsurgical management and are tired of living with inner elbow pain."

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