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Bowling and Your Back: Playing It Safe

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

For a low-impact sport that’s as popular among older Americans as it is with younger generations, bowling poses considerable risks for back strains, sprains, spasms and other spine injuries. Whether you’re an experienced player or someone who’s great at throwing gutter balls, the repetitive motions, twisting maneuvers, heavy equipment and slippery surfaces that are part of the game are all reasons for practicing caution – particularly when you’ve previously suffered a back injury. 

Here are some of the most common reasons that players injure their backs while bowling:

Improper technique and form.

To be sure, bowling involves some awkward ergonomics. Not only do the upper and lower parts of your body turn in opposite directions as you release the ball, but your hand instinctively grips that heavy object as your arm is fully extended and your feet are sliding forward. It all adds up to an excellent way to hurt your back if your mechanics are off by even a little. That’s why, as with any athletic activity, learning the proper technique from a professional instructor makes all the difference in bowling.

Players often bend too far forward in their bowling motion, allowing the shoulders to get well ahead of the body and putting added stress on the lower spine. They may also put too much weight on their toes, which keeps the knees from bending enough and puts the shoulders and rest of the upper body out of alignment – again causing lower back pain. Additionally, taller players are prone to lengthening their normal stride too much while bowling, which can cause them to run out of space at the foul line. When this happens, they are likely to rush their release of the ball and put their arm motion out of sync with the rest of their body, again causing muscle strains.

Over-stressing muscles by playing too often or too quickly.

You may love to bowl, but as with anything else, too much of a good thing can hurt you. Players who bowl every day or who bowl without a break between frames put repetitive stress on muscle groups that are engaged every time they attempt to knock down the pins. This causes muscle fatigue in the knees, back, and hips as well as the elbow, wrist, and shoulders, making bowlers more susceptible to injury. It also contributes to the kind of wear and tear that breaks down joints over time, potentially contributing to the progressive problem of spinal arthritis.

Lack of physical fitness and needed muscle strength.

When you lack the necessary conditioning, strength, and flexibility to bowl but go ahead and do it anyway, you are putting yourself at risk for many potential injuries – including herniated disks as well as typical muscle strains and spasms. Generally speaking, being physically fit with strong core muscles is one of the best ways to reduce your likelihood of injury in any sport, and bowling is no exception. For those who bowl frequently, targeted strengthening and stabilization exercises focusing on the back, shoulders, hips, knees, and arms should be a regular part of their pre-game routine – and everyone should stretch before lighting up those lanes. 

Use of improper or ill-fitting equipment.

One of the most common ways that bowlers hurt their backs is by using a ball that’s too heavy for them. Casual bowlers often assume that the weightier the ball, the more pins it will knock down. But that’s not necessarily true, especially because you’re less likely to have good ball speed or ball control when your body is thrown off-balance by too much weight at the end of your arm. Experts counsel that players should choose the heaviest ball they can comfortably throw using a full arm swing, firm wrist, and appropriate speed.

With regulation balls weighted at 6 to 16 pounds, the rule of thumb for kids is to match their age to the weight of their ball, while physically fit men may heft a 14-16 pound ball and women and seniors generally do best with a 12-to 14-pounder. That said, seniors who have physical disabilities or who encounter difficulty with their usual bowling ball may find it helpful to use one that’s 1-2 pounds lighter, usually without sacrificing their score. One way to test if the ball you’ve chosen is too heavy is to hold it in your hands with both arms fully extended for five seconds. You should be able to do this without tremors in your hands or wrists – if you can’t, try something with less poundage.

Experts also say that if you bowl regularly, it’s worth the cost to purchase your own ball rather than using house rentals if you want to stay injury-free. With your own ball, the finger holes can be drilled precisely where and how you need them to obtain the proper grip. This is important because using a ball with holes that are too far apart or that aren’t a good fit for your fingers will cause you to compensate for this deficiency through adjustments to your bowling motion that can easily result in back, neck, shoulder and arm strains.

Slippery lanes = slippery shoes = increased slips and falls.

Beyond the obvious risks posed by poor-fitting, zero-tread rental shoes and spilled drinks from the snack bar, another reason that falls may occur while bowling is that the lanes are coated with a synthetic oil to allow freer movement of the ball toward the pins. Occasionally, a player may accidentally cross the foul line, causing the sole of their shoe to come in contact with this substance and raising their chances of slipping. Pay attention to this possibility and alert others to it when needed.

The bottom line on bowling:

Strengthening your core muscles, using a ball that has the correct weight and grip for you, learning proper technique from an expert, wearing well-fitting shoes, warming up prior to play and keeping a lookout for fall hazards will help keep your spine safe and injury-free. We hope these tips will allow you to strike the right balance between fun and safe exercise at the bowling alley while contributing to your “perfect game.”

If you've had an injury while bowling, or another activity, it could be time to consult a spine expert. Click here to learn more at the Spine Health Institute and Dr. Chetan Patel.