Golf is a great choice for outdoor exercise that gets you moving, breathing in the fresh air and soaking up some Vitamin D. Moreover, as a “non-contact” sport where no one is hitting each other like they do in football, hockey, and basketball, it’s considered a fairly safe pastime for kids and adults alike. But if you’ve been “off course” recently, whether because of a previous injury or seasonal hiatus, you need to be careful about how you get back in the swing of things.
Read our tips for returning to sports following a back injury.
Why golf is hard on the spine
In contrast to the quiet beauty of the golf course, the complex and repetitive rotational movements required to strike the ball with a golf club at high velocity can have a violent impact on the muscles, ligaments, and bones of your spine. And when you combine these intricate twisting maneuvers with the awkward stance, lack of balance and other mechanical problems that are so common in inexperienced golfers, it’s not hard to see why so many leave the course with a backache.
The most common type of injury seen in amateur golfers is a sudden strain of the back, shoulder or elbow. Failing to warm up properly, lacking adequate flexibility, practicing improper swing mechanics and having insufficient conditioning are all reasons for this – and issues on which you should focus prior to getting back on the golf course.
Get fit and get a coach
First, if you’ve had a serious back injury, you should definitely consult your physician about whether it’s safe for you to start playing golf again, and when. Don’t risk aggravating your previous injury or injuring another part of your body by getting out there too soon.
When you’re truly ready, start with targeted stretching exercises that address hip mobility, trunk control, and core muscle strength. Build up your general fitness level through cardiovascular exercise such as riding a stationary bike, swimming laps in the pool or walking briskly three to five times per week. Some targeted exercises that will get you started include abdominal bracing, the bridge exercise and hip crossover stretches.
When it comes to your swing mechanics, it’s best to consult a coach. You might also want to try out the Spine Health Institute’s Golf Fore Life program for the technical assistance you need to develop or adjust your swing. With professional guidance, you’ll learn how to minimize the rotational stress on your lumbar spine during your backswing, ball contact, and follow-through. You’ll also learn how to maximize the efficiency and power of your stroke by maintaining a fluid sequence of movement, controlling your balance and knowing how and when to shift your weight. In the meantime, here are some basic tips to avoid injuring your back each time you play:
- Improve your general fitness and endurance through cardiovascular exercise
- Always warm up with targeted stretches
- Apply caution when lifting and carrying clubs
- Learn proper posture and body mechanics
- Wear the right kind of shoes
- Stay on tempo and avoid swinging too hard or too fast
- Watch for ground hazards such as tree roots, and avoid making contact with them during your swing
- Stay hydrated
- Remember that all golfers should have a set stretching routine that they perform prior to each round to help loosen tight muscles. It’s also a good idea to warm-up by gently swinging the club and, when possible, taking some practice shots before your game – starting with your wedge and working your way up to the driver.
Acute vs. overuse injuries
Of course, beyond back spasms, sprains, and strains, which are acute or sudden injuries, a significant proportion of injuries in golf are tied to overuse. So ironically, those who play golf frequently – from amateurs to pros like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, the venerable Jack Nicklaus and even the chairman of Augusta National himself, Billy Payne – are equally subject to hurting their backs as the typical out-of-practice duffer. These types of injuries, including herniated disks, vertebral stress fractures, spinal arthritis, spondylolysis and degenerative disk disease, are associated with the repeated stresses to which a golfer’s spine is subjected over time.
The good news is that many of the same precautions that apply for protecting your back from a strain or sprain can also help you avoid long-term injuries like those noted above. That’s because, while not all back injuries in golf are preventable, doing things like strengthening your core muscles, practicing proper swing mechanics and improving your general fitness level can significantly reduce the stresses placed on certain parts of your back over time – both on the course and off!