4 September, 2013 4 September, 2013

Dry-Docked – Dealing with Surfer’s Elbow

Home to our funny bone – the humurus – our elbows are a hinge that, when injured, are no laughing matter. And despite what Bobby Martinez may think, tennis players aren’t the only athletes to suffer from ‘tennis elbow’ – surfers suffer from it too.

Zag’s friendly neighbourhood biokineticist, Schalk van der Merwe, explains below the causes and how best to deal with ‘surfer’s elbow’.


UP IN ARMS  – Dealing with Surfer’s Elbow
by: Schalk van der Merwe

So, there it is, the wave of the set is rolling in. You have priority. It’s building up to be the potential ride of your life. The locals are hooting at the prospect of watching you pull into the barrel of the day: and then it happens. The unthinkable, the unimaginable, and the kind of thing that leads to you waking up drenched in a cold sweat. You paddle and as you are about to take off, you feel your arms buckle underneath you.

Powerless, you end up belly-flopping down the face of the wave and all you can think about is the look of disgust you will be met with, when you paddle back to your spot in the line up after blowing the wave of the day.

“Naught bru, you wasted it bro”. Their voices resound in your head as you make your way for the car-park, tail firmly tucked between your legs.

So, what is it that led to this immaculate fall from grace?

As surfers, our bodies are placed under immense pressure.  Sometimes even more than we care to imagine. How often has it happened that you wake up feeling a sharp pain on the inside of your elbow? Yes, believe it or not, it’s not only tennis players that are prone to “tennis elbow”,  but for the purposes of this piece, we will refer to it as “surfer’s elbow”.

Lateral Epicondylitis, has an ominous ring to it doesn’t it? This is what we medical folk refer to it as.


Basically, this is an inflammatory process that affects at least 40-50% of surfers during their surfing lifetime. That means that at least half of your mates in the lineup have either had, or are currently suffering from elbow pain while paddling or surfing.

Surfer’s Elbow is an overuse injury involving the extensor muscles that originate on the Lateral Epicondylar region of the Distal Humerus (Funny bone). Trust me though; there is nothing funny about this condition.

The injury involves inflammation of the Radial Humeral Bursa, Synovium, Periosteum and the ligament (connective tissue).

“Bru, that’s a lot of big words, but what does it actually mean”, I hear you holler from your couch.

If you have this injury you would feel pain in the forearm and elbow when paddling. The pain often occurs in recreational surfers between the ages of 30-50. Other symptoms may include pain about 1-2 cm down from the bony area at the outside of the elbow. Reduced strength in the wrist, pains on the elbow itself and your fingers feeling stiff when you try and open your hand.

Have you been having trouble cracking open that cold beverage after a long session?  You may be suffering from “Surfer’s elbow”

I have had many a fellow surfer sit in my consultation room, asking for any remedy that would get them back into the water as quickly as possible.

My best advice is this:

When pain presents, apply ice to the elbow for 15 minutes at a time. Repeat this a few times a day. This will reduce the pain and inflammation that may be present.

Rest is probably the most important part of the process; however, the only way a surfer is going to rest when injured, is during a howling Easterly. If rest is not an option, a brace could help alleviate the problem. Personally, I am not a huge fan of braces, so I would suggest that, as with all soft-tissue injuries – a comprehensive rehabilitation program should be prescribed by a Biokineticist or Physio.




Schalk van der Merwe is a qualified Durban based biokineticist, who has extensive experience in working with rehabilitation of orthopedic injuries. Not only has he worked with many of SA’s surfing elite, but also has helped with the conditioning and rehabilitation of high profile sportsman and woman in all sporting codes. When he is not out at backline, you will find him at Kings Park Sports Medicine Centre (Glenwood Branch).



If you’ve got a surfing injury that needs some attention, why not try contacting one of Zag’s friendly neighbourhood biokineticists:

For KZN:
Schalk van der Merwe

For Boland:
Philip Nel
Le Roux and Nel Biokineticists


  1. good read
    4 September, 2013 at 1:30 pm · Reply

    exactly what i currently have ;-(

  2. stan
    5 September, 2013 at 3:47 pm · Reply

    Yeah me too – really struggling – 2 weeks rest and still in pain – have booked the cortisone jab . 🙁

  3. Stuffs1
    6 September, 2013 at 9:54 am · Reply

    howling easterlies are the wind of choice where im from. In fact we can surf somewhere on in any wind in the cape. Fail…..

  4. pb
    26 September, 2013 at 1:07 pm · Reply

    Thanks for shedding light…suffered from this previously and it really does suck.

  5. William Farris
    12 December, 2016 at 10:21 pm · Reply

    Worst article ever dude. All this article Does is name an inflammation problem and prescribe ice for it. Thanks bro I missed that soccer practice when I was 5 and my coach told me to ice my ankle. If you want to be helpful and still plug your trade give people an initial Rehab exercise that they can do that will show them actual physical results. Then they will know you’re legit and come back to you when they have other problems with their body. Your the pro but all I got from that was that you are familiar with the injury but nothing to prove that you have a solution.

    • Name (required)ty
      14 May, 2018 at 1:56 pm · Reply


  6. Name (required)vt
    27 February, 2017 at 12:40 am · Reply

    I have this pain but on the medial side of the elbow. Is it still surfers elbow?

    And I second William Farris’ thoughts that some exercises would be good.


  7. scott
    28 April, 2018 at 3:08 pm · Reply

    im with ferris
    that suckd.

  8. Michael Eggleston
    14 July, 2019 at 8:06 am · Reply

    Yes I have this exact problem, it pretty much ruined my recent Mentaiwis trip

  9. Real Talk
    19 November, 2019 at 11:39 pm · Reply

    Farris has the right of it – have an inury? Here’s what’s happening – sucks right? You should ice it, then come see me so I can profit from your injury.

  10. Pete
    4 December, 2019 at 12:45 am · Reply

    This link has some good exercises: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf695_IJO8g

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *