You don’t have to play golf to experience the pain and tenderness of medial epicondylitis, aka golfer’s elbow. “We also see it in people who play sports where they throw or weight lift and have jobs where they grip and hold things,” says physical therapist Matt Popiolkowski, PT, DPT.
If you have a mild case, rest may help relieve your symptoms, especially if you don’t have to continue doing the activity that caused the condition. But enlisting help from an orthopaedist or physical therapist can reduce recovery time and discomfort, says Dr. Popiolkowski.
“A physical therapist is a great first stop. Most of the time, you don’t need a referral. We can also refer you to the right doctor if needed as we start physical therapy exercises for golfer’s elbow,” he notes.
What is golfer’s elbow?
On the inside crook of your elbow, several muscles come together and connect. These muscles are responsible for flexing your wrist and fingers. Golfer’s elbow happens when these muscles are inflamed.
“Those muscles are always in use, and that’s their anchor point. When flexing and contracting, they tug and pull at that anchor point to do their job. The issue comes when those muscles are worked beyond their limit,” explains Dr. Popiolkowski. “The tissue fibers become disorganized and cannot function normally. This can cause pain, weakness and inflammation.”
Most people with golfer’s elbow experience elbow tenderness, even from a light touch. You might also have pain when you bend your wrist.
7 physical therapy exercises for golfer’s elbow
Dr. Popiolkowski says an effective golfer’s elbow treatment plan first starts with exercises to get your symptoms under control. Then, you do exercises to improve upper body mobility. Here, he shares seven golfer’s elbow stretches and exercises to help you heal and restore function.
Upper body exercises for golfer’s elbow symptoms
Golfer’s elbow stretches and exercises can quickly improve symptom intensity and frequency, says Dr. Popiolkowski. “You may notice improvement during your first week of treatment. But it depends on how inflamed and irritated the tissue is. If the tissue is really affected, it could take six to eight weeks — or even longer — to see significant improvement.”
Three golfer’s elbow stretches and exercises he recommends for symptom control include:
1. Wrist/forearm soft tissue rolling
This golfer’s elbow exercise involves minimal stretching and moving around the tissues to get blood flowing in the area. “Many people want to stretch the area because it feels tight, but pump the brakes on doing too much of that. The tissue is inflamed, irritated and not moving well. Stretching could make it worse,” says Dr. Popiolkowski.
Try this soft tissue rolling technique instead.
- Get a rounded object like a tennis or lacrosse ball.
- Put your forearm (the lower half of your arm) on top of the ball with your palm facing up or down.
- Slowly roll your entire forearm up and down the ball 10 to 15 times.
- Stop on spots that feel extra sore. Flex and extend your wrists while maintaining pressure.
You can do soft tissue rolling a few times a day. Use less or more pressure, depending on how sensitive the area is.
2. Wrist flexion isometric exercise
Isometric exercises activate muscles against a fixed object so they can go through their range of motion without moving your affected joint.
“We want to rest the area while remodeling the tissue. Isometric exercises help control how these muscles contract,” says Dr. Popiolkowski.
Here’s how to do an isometric exercise for wrist flexion.
- Place the palm of your affected forearm up on a table or your thigh. You can also make a fist if you prefer.
- Put your unaffected hand on top of your other hand.
- Flex your wrist up while your opposite hand resists this motion. Use constant pressure to keep your wrist in the same position.
- Continue this exercise for 30 seconds to one minute.
“These longer duration isometric exercises have been shown to help decrease pain levels,” says Dr. Popiolkowski. “Do this exercise daily and go for five to eight repetitions throughout the day. The longer you hold it, the fewer reps you have to do.”
3. Wrist flexion/extension stretch
- Extend your arm.
- Bend your wrist down and up until you feel tension in both directions.
- Repeat 20 to 30 times several times a day.
“If you want, apply a little pressure at the end, but don’t hold it for a long static stretch,” adds Dr. Popiolkowski. “It’s just a little push up and down to maintain full mobility there.”
Golfer’s elbow stretches and exercises for mobility
While reducing your symptoms, Dr. Popiolkowski says your physical therapist will also make sure your shoulders and back are moving well. “Good mobility in your back and shoulders can reduce the load on the muscles around your elbow and forearm,” he notes.
Try these four golfer’s elbow stretches and exercises for mobility.
1. Open book
- Lie on your side and bend your knees up to hip level.
- Extend your arms straight out in front of you and put your hands together at chest or shoulder height.
- Lift your top arm and move it so it falls toward the ground on the other side until you feel a stretch.
- Bring your arm back to its original position.
“This exercise offers great rotation in your thoracic spine while you’re in a comfortable, stable position on the floor,” says Dr. Popiolkowski. “Do 20 to 30 repetitions of this movement daily.”
2. Supine (or seated) thoracic extension with a foam roll, towel roll or low back chair (for seated)
You can do this exercise while lying on your back or sitting in a chair with a low back.
- Roll up a large towel. Put it between your shoulder blades horizontally. (You can also use a foam roller instead of a towel.)
- Tighten your stomach as if someone is about to punch you in your gut.
- Lift your arms over your head. (If you have shoulder issues, touch your hands to your elbows and take your elbows overhead.)
- Extend your upper back and body over the top of the roll.
“This exercise allows you to stretch your whole front side so you can extend your thoracic spine,” explains Dr. Popiolkowski. “Do this stretch 20 to 30 times a day.”
3. Latissumus dorsi stretch
- Rest your elbows on a bench, chair, couch or similar object. Your elbows and hands should be shoulder-width apart.
- Hold a broomstick or golf club in that position.
- Drop your butt down toward your feet, so your chest drops to the ground.
- Hold this position for eight to 10 seconds. Repeat 15 times in a row.
You should feel a stretch through the latissimus dorsi, the muscle underneath your armpit.
4. Shoulder/scapular wall slide
- Stand with your forearms against the wall. Or put a foam roller between your forearms and the wall.
- Slide your forearms straight up and down the wall, keeping contact with the wall/foam roller the entire time.
- Continue this motion for one minute.
- Repeat two more times.
“Tighten your stomach during the motion, so you don’t cause excess movement in your back,” advises Dr. Popiolkowski. “This exercise does a great job of activating the muscles that help upwardly rotate the shoulder blade, creating better movement for your shoulders.”
What exercises should you avoid with golfer’s elbow?
While rehabbing, try not to aggravate your injury with movements that involve engaging the muscles in your forearm.
Golfer’s elbow exercises to avoid include:
- Heavy lifting, especially in a palm-up position.
- Repetitive pulling or lifting.
- Movements that involve your symptomatic side.
Once you recover, prevent re-injury by maintaining:
- Shoulder mobility (you should be able to move your arms overhead and to the side).
- Good posture (keeps your spine and shoulders in good alignment).