How to Treat Elbow Pain

Q: I am fairly active and play a lot of golf and tennis. I recently developed some pain in my elbow. What can I do?

A: While golf and tennis are great sports to play, both put pressure on the elbow, which can lead to repetitive motion injuries. If you have pain, you need to modify your activity and find the cause of the pain.

If the pain is on the outside of the elbow, it’s usually characterized as tennis elbow. If the pain is on the inside of the elbow, then it’s referred to as golfer’s elbow. By the way, just because these injuries have sports in their names, they can also be caused by other repetitive motion activities. Tennis elbow pain is caused when the tendon that attaches to the elbow from the forearm’s muscles are injured or overworked through some sort of activity. Golfer’s elbow happens at the point where the forearm’s tendons attach to the bony part of the inner elbow and is also caused by some sort of injury or repetitive stress. These tendons can also degenerate with time.

Classically, when pain is on the inside or outside of the elbow as described above was referred to as tendonitis, but more recent evidence suggests there are also chronic wear and tear changes (so called tendonosis). This is important because it affects treatment options.

Whether the pain is on the inside or outside of the elbow, icing the area, using an anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDS) and rest are common treatments. Once the elbow feels better, using a brace may help prevent future injuries.

You can help alleviate future elbow problems to stretch the muscles out before any activities. I know we often think about stretching our larger muscles in our shoulders and legs, but it’s just as important to stretch smaller ones. A few simple stretches to help the elbow include flexing and rotating your wrists, which will build up strength throughout your arm.

If the pain doesn’t go away by taking these simple steps, then it’s time to contact a physician, who may order an X-ray to rule out a more severe problem. Musculoskeletal specialists like sports medicine physicians or non-surgical orthopedists may have additional options for you such as injections, but usually the cornerstone of treatment is physical therapy. The goal is to decrease your pain, keep you functional and get you back on the court or course.

By Erica Kroncke, MD, sports medicine physician, ThedaCare Orthopedic Care, Appleton.