Over the past couple of years, golf has really taken off in the United States. According to statistics, more than 25.3 million people — or almost 10 percent of the population — play golf every year, with the numbers steadily growing. Though it involves less impact than many other sports, golf still carries the risk of injury. Many players, regardless of age, find themselves suffering from lower back and spine pain that can result from the unnatural motion and torsion or twisting from swinging a golf club.
As a matter of fact, according to the University of Pittsburgh Neuromuscular Research Laboratory, "more than 30 percent of golfers have experienced issues related to low-back pain or injury that have affected their ability to continue enjoying the game of golf."
Why Are Back Injuries So Common In Golf?
There are a number of reasons that back pain is the most common golf injury. The biggest is likely due to the repetitive and often intense movement of the golf swing. Top golfers can generate club head speeds exceeding 120 mph. This powerful swing puts the back into an unnatural position where the body weight is shifted, the spine is twisted and the weight of the club is placed behind the neck.
Additionally, golfers spend an average of four to five hours repeating the same, abnormal motion of bending down and back up potentially hundreds of times during a round of golf. This repeated action can put extreme amounts of pressure on the spine and the surrounding muscles, which can eventually lead to pain and injury.
Where Do Golf Injuries Come From?
At this point, it’s important to note that pain in the lower back is rarely the actual source of the problem. Most of the time, the abnormal motion of the golf swing causes an issue elsewhere in the body that forces the lower back to do more work than it should. More often than not, golf-related back pain is the result of strained, inflamed or tight muscles and/or ligaments that pull on the bones around them, not necessarily a problem with the spine itself.
More than 80 percent of reported golf injuries come from muscle strains or ligament sprains. “Pulled muscles,” as they are more commonly known, occur when a muscle tears or is overstretched suddenly or unexpectedly, often the result of fatigue or overuse.
While symptoms can range from minor discomfort to debilitating pain, most of the time they can be relieved through non-surgical methods such as rest, ice, heat therapy and anti-inflammatory pain medication like ibuprofen. Giving your muscles adequate time to recover is absolutely essential to avoiding further injury. If you play with torn muscles, even if they aren’t exceptionally painful, the repetitive motions in golf can further aggravate the injury, potentially leading to a bigger tear and/or further complications.
There are also golf-related injuries that, while less common, directly affect the spine and can cause significant pain. One of the most persistent problems is known as a herniated disc. Herniated discs can occur in athletes who engage in sports where repetitive stress is put onto the discs in the spine.
It can be helpful to imagine that the discs providing shock absorption and cushioning between the vertebrae in your spine are designed a lot like jelly donuts — a strong outer ring of fiber with a softer, more gelatinous substance in the center. When exposed to repeated stress and duress, it’s possible for the outer shell (or annulus) of a disc to weaken and bulge, this is known as a “slipped disc.” In more severe cases, the outer shell can actually rupture, allowing the soft, inner material to leak out of the disc and put pressure on the nerves surrounding it. The now herniated disc can cause excruciating pain as well as numbness and tingling in various parts of the body.
Tiger Woods is an excellent example of the dramatic impact a herniated disc can have on an athlete. Over the past three years, Tiger has undergone three separate surgeries to correct the discs in his spine.
How Can I Avoid Injury?
In order to avoid potentially serious spine issues, it’s important that you follow a few simple steps:
1. Warm up before you start to play — and stay warm
You should be spending about 30 minutes preparing your body and muscles for action, but about 80 percent of golfers spend less than 10 minutes warming up before playing a game.
Start by loosening up the muscles in your back, legs, arms and other areas you’ll be repeatedly using throughout the day. This provides more blood flow into the muscles you’ll be using frequently, reducing your risk of injury.
Next, try hitting a few golf balls off the range before heading out to the course. Start with half-swings then work your way up to longer clubs.
Finally, skip the golf cart whenever you can. Walking around the course will help keep your body loose throughout the day and ensure that you don’t swing on cold muscles.
2. Optimize Your Mechanics
Your swing is one of the most important aspects of your game. There’s a reason that professional golfers spend hours perfecting their swing: a sloppy swing can mean a sloppy score. A sloppy swing can also cause injury if consistently repeated.
Studies have shown that amateur golfers are 2-3 times more likely to be injured when compared to pros. This shows that perfecting the mechanics of a swing can make all the difference when you’re out on the fairway.
Making adjustments, even ones that seem minor, can make a dramatic impact on the amount of pressure you’re putting on your spine and help you avoid back pain. While you should consult a golf coach or professional video tutorials on how you should play, there are several basic ways you can help protect your health:
Maintain a Neutral Posture
Many golfers make the mistake of pointing their spines to wrong way when swinging, known as Reverse Spine Angle, or arching their lower backs when setting up to swing, known as S-posture. Instead, players should focus on keeping what is known as a neutral position, meaning that their upper backs and shoulders are straight and they bend forward using their hips, not their backs.
Make Your Swing Smooth
A golf swing needs to be powerful in order to achieve good clubhead speed. However, if done incorrectly this swing can put a significant amount of torque and twisting onto the lower spine, which can eventually lead to injury. It’s important for golfers to emphasize a smooth, rhythmic swing that transfers force through multiple muscle groups; not one part of the body in particular. This can be achieved by ensuring that the shoulders, pelvis, chest and spine all share the force of the swing. Of course, perfecting a fluid golf swing is easier said than done, but practice makes perfect and your spine will thank you for it.
Swinging your club too hard or too fast can place unnecessary and excessive stress on the spine and joints around the body. Instead of hitting the ball with all your might, it’s more important to simply relax and take a nice, easy swing at the ball. Often, the best golfers in the game have consistent, not necessarily fast tempo, swings.
3. Let Your Body Recover
Like any physical exercise, golf breaks down the muscles in the body. Not giving them the proper amount of time to recover can lead to potentially serious injury. When dealing with a muscle strain, the best thing you can do is give yourself a couple of days to rest, making sure that you’re getting enough sleep and are applying heat and/or ice to the area causing pain. This will help reduce inflammation in the muscles and allow an increased amount of blood flow and nutrients that help promote healing. You can also take some anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen to help with pain.
If you think your back pain might be caused by a herniated disc, it’s important that you talk to a spine specialist about both surgical and non-surgical treatment options.
Taking care of your spine is the key to longevity in the game of golf. A great example of this is Gus Andreone. At 104, Andreone still plays golf three times a week, is the oldest living golf professional recognized by the PGA and, just recently, earned a world record for being the oldest person to ever hit a hole-in-one. Andreone credits his health and longevity to his daily routine.
In the end, focusing on the fundamentals and taking small, precautionary steps could be the difference between experiencing back pain after every game and happily playing golf for many years to come.