Tennis Elbow vs. Golfers Elbow

Tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow are two conditions to confuse easily. They both affect the same general area, the elbow to the wrist, but involve different tendons and somewhat different symptoms. While the two conditions can be quite uncomfortable, they’re highly treatable. Find out more about the symptoms of each and how to differentiate between the two conditions.

What Is Tennis Elbow?

tennis elbow vs golfers elbow

Image via Flickr by Injurymap

Tennis elbow, medically called lateral epicondylitis, is an injury from repetitive motion and overuse of the tendons in the elbow. It’s most common for people between 30 and 50, but it can occur at any age, with women and men equally diagnosed. The tendons, which connect to and help control the wrist, may lose attachment strength where they anchor muscles to the bones. The weakened attachment site leads to pain and tenderness during movement and daily activities.

Tennis players have developed this ailment around the elbow in the arm they use to play the sport. Tennis elbow occurs more often in players who use equipment that isn’t suited to their body strength, hitting the ball off-center, gripping the racket too firmly, and using incorrect techniques.

What Is Golfer’s Elbow?

Golfer’s elbow, medically called epicondylitis, occurs on the inner side of the arm and elbow. It’s caused by flexing and twisting the wrist downward or excessive use of forearm muscles. Repetitive lifting by extending your elbow and facing the palm of your hand downward can lead to a golfer’s elbow as well.

Golfing, as well as repetitive activities like throwing a ball, gardening, shoveling, and painting, can lead to a golfer’s elbow. It’s more common among those over age 40, especially those who smoke or are obese. Repetitive activities like factory work and weight training, especially those done more than two hours a day, are also risk factors for developing a golfer’s elbow.

Which Symptoms Do the Two Ailments Share?

Both tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow are related to overuse from repetitive actions that cause damage to tendons that attach muscles to the bone at the elbow. The two conditions cause inflammation and may result in a tearing of the tendon. While the two conditions that cause elbow area pain are named after sports, multiple activities can cause them. It may also be tricky to nail down which action caused either condition since they start gradually and then worsen over time. Tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow share some treatments, which begin with reducing strain and activity at the affected joint.

Both ailments are seen in painters, carpenters, plumbers, and others who perform repetitive movements at the wrist. The pain and inflammation are similar in both tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow, but they occur in different sides of the elbow and in different tendons.

Which Symptoms Are Specific to Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow symptoms include inflammation, pain, and tenderness on the outside of the elbow and forearm. It affects the outside epicondyle tendon, connected to the muscles that move the wrist backward and spread the fingers apart. Tennis elbow usually begins with mild symptoms that get worse with time. Due to the slow start of symptoms, it can’t be traced back to a specific activity many times. Pain may radiate from the elbow down the forearm and get worse when straightening the elbow.
Other symptoms include trouble grasping or lifting, a weakened grip, pain when using the elbow or wrist, numb fingers, and ache during rest. Tennis elbow is most common on the dominant arm, but it can develop in both arms. It occurs more commonly in those over age 40 from weight lifting, gardening, or professionals like painters and cooks.

Which Symptoms Are Specific to Golfer’s Elbow?

Golfer’s elbow symptoms include inflammation, pain, and tenderness on the inner side of the joints in the arm and elbow, with pain going down the arm. Golfer’s elbow also can cause the fingers to tingle or experience numbness. It affects the inside epicondyle tendon, connected to the muscles that flex the wrist and move the fingers to contract and grip.

Symptoms also include pain from making a fist or twisting the forearm, as well as tenderness or swelling of affected areas. Hand and wrist weakness and stiffness are possible without prompt treatment of the golfer’s elbow. It can occur more commonly in those over age 40 from computer use, fencing, or professionals like carpenters and assembly-line workers.

How Are the Two Types of Ailments Treated?

Treatment for both ailments is similar. Medical attention is typically necessary to identify the issues and develop a care plan. Common care plans include rest, medication to reduce inflammation, physical therapy, massage, braces and other assistive equipment, and changing diet to reduce inflammation.

Both conditions may require surgery if symptoms don’t subside after about six months to a year. Surgery removes damaged muscle and re-attaches healthy muscle to the bone. Surgical procedures typically are outpatient and require physical therapy and a six-month recovery. Minimally invasive surgery with removal of scar tissue done through ultrasound guidance is an emerging technology that may become common in the future.

Tennis elbow is degenerative in nature, with slow onset related to overuse of a joint. If it isn’t treated, it can lead to further tendon damage and more severe symptoms like difficulty with daily activities like opening jars and turning a doorknob. Treatment may require limiting or modifying certain activities, which is especially important for work-related cases. Diagnosis often results in a treatment plan of modified activities and physical therapy to strengthen the affected area and reduce stress on the elbow. Recommended exercises can also alleviate symptoms and prevent future flare-ups.

Golfer’s elbow is also degenerative in nature and has a similar treatment plan to tennis elbow. Left untreated, golfer’s elbow can lead to loss of grip strength, limited elbow motion, and a permanent bend in the elbow. Treatment includes rest and applying ice, medication, a counterforce brace, and physical and occupational therapy.

If you have tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow symptoms, you should be checked out by a professional to ensure a proper diagnosis and treatment plan are set to reduce pain and prevent worsening of the condition or a re-occurrence. Other conditions and injuries can cause elbow pain, so a proper diagnosis is key to effective treatment. Contact the knowledgeable team at Hand and Wrist Institute for answers to your questions or to schedule an initial appointment.

Dr. John Knight
Dr. John Knight

Dr. Knight is a renowned hand, wrist and upper extremity surgeon with over 25 years of experience. Dr. Knight is a Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon and Fellowship trained. Dr Knight has appeared on CNN, The Doctors TV, Good Morning America, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, Oxygen network and more.