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Elbow Pain from Lifting: Understanding Tennis Elbow vs Golfer’s Elbow

A man weight lifting in the gym with dumbells.
If you’re an avid gym-goer, athlete, or someone who regularly lifts heavy objects, you may have experienced elbow pain when lifting. This discomfort is not exclusive to tennis players or golfers, as the names may suggest. Various activities involving repetitive elbow movements, like weightlifting, can cause this type of pain in the inner elbow, often referred to as Tennis Elbow or Golfer’s Elbow.

The Elbow's Anatomy

The elbow is a complex joint formed by three bones: the humerus (upper arm bone), and the radius and ulna (forearm bones). These bones are connected by muscles, ligaments, and tendons, which collectively facilitate elbow movements. Two specific bony bumps, called epicondyles, located at the humerus’s bottom, connect the forearm’s muscles and tendons to the elbow. The lateral epicondyle is on the outside of the elbow, while the medial epicondyle is on the inside.

The elbow allows for four primary functions: flexion, extension, supination, and pronation. Stress during these actions can lead to the development of conditions like Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow, especially during strength training exercises.

A woman experiencing elbow discomfort.

Understanding the Causes of Elbow Pain when Lifting

While chest, triceps, and shoulder exercises can all exert pressure on the elbow, the most common cause of elbow pain during and after lifting is improper bicep curls. If you’re experiencing inner elbow pain or outside elbow pain, it could be related to one or more common mistakes in your bicep curl form. Understanding these reasons can help you adjust your form and prevent elbow pain from lifting weights.

1. Tight Grip on the Bar or Dumbbell

When lifting weights, a too-tight grip on the bar or dumbbell activates the flexor tendon that allows your wrist to bend or curl forward. This activation can lead to inner elbow pain and golfer’s elbow, even if your wrist maintains a neutral position throughout the curl.

2. Improper Wrist Position

Similar to gripping the bar or dumbbell too tightly, allowing your wrists to roll forward will activate the flexor tendon, possibly leading to inner elbow pain. Conversely, if you extend/bend your wrists backward during a curl, the weight will activate the extension tendons in your wrists attached to the outer side of your elbow, potentially causing outside elbow pain and tennis elbow.

3. Overloading with Too Much Weight

Overloading with too much weight for your bicep curl may not necessarily be related to your bicep strength but could be linked to your grip and forearm strength. If your lack of grip strength causes you to over-grip the bar or dumbbells, or if your insufficient forearm strength causes a flexion or extension of the wrist, the weight is probably too heavy for you to curl while maintaining proper form. Poor form can lead to elbow pain and injury.

4. Lack of Variation in Bicep Curl Workout

Repetition can lead to overuse injuries. If you always do the same one or two types of bicep curls, your arms and elbows are repetitively stressed by the same forces, potentially leading to tennis elbow and/or golfer’s elbow. To avoid repetitive stress injuries, it’s important to vary your strength training exercises.

Tennis Elbow: A Closer Look

Tennis elbow, also known as lateral epicondylitis, is often associated with the muscle called the Extensor Carpi Radialis Brevis (ECRB). This forearm muscle is responsible for the extension of the wrists and fingers. When the ECRB weakens from overuse, microscopic tears can form in the extensor where it attaches to the lateral epicondyle (the outer bump on the elbow), causing pain and inflammation, also known as tennis elbow.

Golfer's Elbow: An Overview

Conversely, golfer’s elbow, also known as medial epicondylitis, occurs on the opposite side of the elbow. This condition is a repetitive stress injury caused by overuse, leading to damage to the muscles and tendons that connect to the medial epicondyle (the inner bump on the elbow), resulting in severe inner elbow pain.
A woman meets with her doctor to discuss her elbow pain. The doctor checks her elbow joint for en elbow injury.

Treatment Options for Tennis Elbow and Golfer's Elbow

Both tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow typically require non-surgical treatments and physical therapy. Rest, ice, anti-inflammatory medications, and changes to repetitive stress movements are usually enough to treat these conditions.

However, if your elbow pain does not subside in 6 to 12 months with rest and therapy, it’s advisable to consult your orthopedic elbow specialist for steroidal or surgical options. While elbow surgery for these conditions is not common, severe injuries may require arthroscopic elbow surgery.

What Is the Difference Between Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow?

It’s quite common for patients to confuse tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow due to their similar characteristics. However, they are distinct conditions, and understanding the correct cause for your elbow pain is crucial for receiving appropriate treatment.

Both conditions are overuse injuries, resulting from repetitive motions involving your arm and wrist, and both involve damage to the tendons that attach your forearm muscles to the bone at your elbow. They both cause inflammation of the tendons, leading to partial or full-thickness tears. Elbow pain is a common symptom for both, but they occur in different areas of the elbow.

Tennis elbow affects the lateral (outside) epicondyle tendon, which is connected to the muscles that stretch your wrist backward and allow you to spread your fingers. Golfer’s elbow, on the other hand, affects the medial (inside) epicondyle tendon, attached to the muscles you use to flex your wrist and contract your fingers, like when you grip something.

A woman playing tennis holds her elbow. If you experience elbow pain after sports, contact your doctor to find a way to treat tennis elbow.

Tennis Elbow: Signs, Causes, and Treatment

Tennis elbow usually develops gradually, starting off as mild discomfort and worsening as time passes. Many people suffering from tennis elbow experience recurring pain radiating from the elbow all the way down the forearm, with pain that increases when they attempt to extend or straighten the elbow. Other common signs of tennis elbow include difficulty grasping or lifting objects, weak grip strength, and sharp twinges when engaged in activities using the elbow.

Tennis elbow is most common in people ages 30 to 50, although the condition can be seen in people of all ages. Typically, overuse is defined as a high activity level three or more times per week with activity lasting 30 minutes or more per session. A poor overall fitness level can exacerbate the problems caused by overuse of the forearm and elbow area.

The majority of tennis elbow cases will improve after six months to one year of nonsurgical treatment. However, some patients may require surgery to remove the pain-producing tendon. After surgery, the arm is temporarily immobilized using a splint. The patient begins gradual strengthening exercises three to four weeks after the procedure, with the goal of being able to return to light athletic activity within four to six weeks and competitive athletic activity within four to six months.

A golfer stands holding a club and golf ball. Golfer's Elbow is an overuse injury that doesn't just effect golfers, though. It can be seen in those who lift weights as well.

Golfer’s Elbow: Signs, Causes, and Treatment

Golfer’s elbow is a completely different disorder than tennis elbow. Medial epicondylitis, more commonly referred to as golfer’s elbow, is discomfort or irritation occurring on the inner side of the arm and elbow that is caused by activities that require repeated flexing or twisting of the wrist. When you do activities that require repeated lifting, especially if your elbow is extended and your palm is facing down, this can also cause the condition.

People who are suffering from golfer’s elbow often experience pain when making a fist or twisting the forearm. In many cases, the affected area is tender to the touch or slightly swollen. If you are suffering from golfer’s elbow, pain often seems to worsen when you attempt to flex your wrist, pick up something with your palm down or squeeze a ball.

If the condition is not treated promptly, golfer’s elbow can cause weakness in the hands or wrist as well as stiffness in the elbow. The treatments for golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow are similar in most cases.

How to Avoid Elbow Injuries

Although tennis elbow treatment is very effective at relieving pain and improving range of motion, it’s possible for the condition to reoccur if the patient slips back into old habits. Modifying your daily routine is a key component of staying injury-free.

If your tennis elbow is caused by work-related duties, it’s recommended that you speak to your supervisor or a company human resources representative about making accommodations to avoid a relapse or chronic injury. For example, if typing is the primary cause of your injury, you may need to type on a split keyboard to help your hands stay in a more natural line and use a wrist pad to keep your hands level with the keyboard at all times.

If your pain is related to tennis, weight lifting, or another sport, individualized coaching can help you refine your technique to prevent injury. In addition, a coach can check that your equipment properly fits your needs.

A patient recieves physical therapy on their outer elbow.

Final Thoughts

If you are experiencing elbow pain and the pain persists, or if you need assistance in managing or treating elbow pain, do not hesitate to contact Victoria Orthopedic Center. Our team of experts is ready to assist you in every way possible, ensuring that you receive the best care that suits your specific needs.

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Specializes In:

  • Hand & Upper Extremities
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  • Joint Replacement
  • Sports Medicine
  • Total Joint Replacement
  • Advanced Ligament Reconstruction
  • Shoulder, Elbow and Wrist Arthroscopy
  • Hip, Knee and Ankle Arthroscopy
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  • Hand & Wrist & Elbow Arthritis
  • Biceps Tendon Injuries
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Specializes In:

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  • Advanced Ligament Reconstruction
  • Shoulder, Elbow and Wrist Arthroscopy
  • Carpal Tunnel/Trigger Finger
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