Back in the Swing: Treating Golfer's Elbow with Acupuncture

Over the years in my acupuncture practice, I occasionally will have a patient who wants to know if acupuncture can help their golf game. One came to me for a bad case of the yips. Apparently every time he swung the club, he would tense up or twitch, throwing his game out the window. Another patient who was seeing me for an unrelated health condition found that she was playing the best golf of her life. But really, I don’t pretend to believe that your golf game can be improved by acupuncture, except in the case of golfer’s elbow.

Like tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow presents as pain in the elbow, but with one difference: tennis elbow pain occurs on the outside of the elbow, and golfer’s elbow pain is felt on the inside of the elbow. In reality, tennis players, golfers, or anyone who grasps repeatedly with their hands or fingers can develop golfer’s elbow.

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Also known as medial epicondylitis, golfer’s elbow is almost always caused either by overuse of your hand and wrist, or improper form when lifting, throwing, or hitting. In most cases, your wrist should be in a neutral position (not bent in either direction) on impact, and repeated bad form only aggravates the tendons and ramps up the pain.

Golfers develop this kind of elbow pain from either gripping or swinging their clubs improperly or gripping too hard. I have also seen a number of patients who have developed golfer’s elbow from lifting weights—usually biceps curls with too heavy of a weight or lifting with their wrists curled inward. For tennis players, a bent wrist at the point of impact with the ball, or too much topspin can cause elbow pain. Household projects, such as painting, hammering, raking, and repeatedly turning a screwdriver can also be a source of golfer’s elbow.

Because golfer’s elbow is a kind of tendonitis, it can take a long time to resolve. The good news is that acupuncture can be helpful in speeding up the healing process. A few well-placed needles, some far infrared heat, electric stimulation, and Tui Na (a kind of bodywork) can help alleviate the pain associated with golfer’s elbow and get you back on the links, tennis court, or weight room.

Acupuncture is effective for this kind of injury for a couple of reasons. First, the circulation of inflammation-fighting white blood cells is increased locally where the acupuncture needles are placed. Second, acupuncture increases circulation in general, which helps speed up healing. And third, acupuncture helps block pain signals getting to your brain and ramps up your body’s own pain killing chemicals. So while tendonitis can be slow to heal, acupuncture can be a major player in how quickly it resolves.

In the meantime, here are a few things that you can do for yourself if you’re suffering from golfer’s elbow:

-Rest. While this may seem obvious, I have worked with a number of patients who couldn’t or wouldn’t give it a rest, only to make their golfer’s elbow worse.

-Try some support. I have found that a wrist support is helpful in cases of golfer’s and tennis elbow. By supporting your wrist in a neutral position, it allows you to give the cranky and overworked tendons that move your wrist but attach at the elbow a wrist.

-Ice…or heat. If your elbow is inflamed from being used, then by all means put some ice on it. However, if your elbow pain is chronic, my advice is to warm it up to increase the circulation in the area. In addition, if you are planning to exercise, warm it up before use to loosen the muscles and tendons up, then ice it afterward to calm the area down.

-Stretch your forearm muscles, but gently. A physical therapist or athletic trainer can set you up with some stretches, and when you’re ready, some gentle strengthening exercises to help rehab the area.

-Take it slow. It is human nature to want to test a newly healed area, but doing so often results in further damaging the injury. Let your elbow heal completely before you get back to a full menu of exercises and activities.

-An ounce of prevention…There are a number of things you can do to prevent golfer’s elbow in the first place. Among them:

  • Since poor form is one of the main causes of golfer’s elbow, work with a coach or instructor to make sure your form is spot on.
  • Make sure you have the right equipment for your sport. Make sure your equipment fits you and isn’t contributing to the problem. For example, a heavy tennis racquet or golf clubs can be updated for newer, lighter ones.
  • Work to keep your forearm muscles strong. Squeezing a tennis ball or lifting light weights to strengthen the muscles on both the front and back of your forearms can help prevent overuse or stress-related injuries.
  • Keep your wrist in a neutral position at the moment of impact. Whether you’re swinging a golf club, hitting a tennis ball, or doing biceps curls, keeping your wrist straight will help avoid elbow injuries.

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