Tiger Woods is back in the news, and golf in the U.S. is bigger than ever. After a historic boom in the early 2000s, golf continues to grow in popularity, with much of that growth in the over-65 set, according to the National Golf Foundation.
What some of us don’t know is that golf is far more physically demanding than non-players realize. Think about Tiger, who, now in his early 40s, has had numerous back and knee surgeries. Your back, wrists, elbows and knees all come into play in a major way in the game of golf. In the case of amateur golfers, injuries are usually related to overuse, poor technique or both in the swing and/or the grip. Injuries can happen to golfers of all ages. Golfers can prevent injury by working towards a baseline fitness level and finding and using a safe swing. If you do get injured, a solid physical therapy program is often the best way to recover and get back to the sport you love.
What Are the Most Common Golf Injuries?
Your golf swing really brings your whole body into the action, and there are certain spots that take the brunt of the impact. Here are some of the most common golf injuries:
- Back injuries: According to a 2013 study published in “Sports Health,” low back pain is the most common issue among golfers, accounting for up to 35 percent of golf injuries. These problems tend to develop over time rather than stemming from a single incident and are often related to poor form. According to the study, the Tiger-inspired swing popular with today’s golfers plays a big role in low back injuries. The modern golf swing often includes what’s known as lumbar hyperextension, a sort of mini-backbend or backward C-shape that can give golfers more power but also puts more pressure on the spine.
- Elbow injuries: Golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow are repetitive motion injuries to the elbow, and both often result from incorrect form. When subjected to repetitive motion, tiny tears can appear in the tendons around the elbow, leading to inflammation and pain. The two conditions have similar symptoms but affect different tendons around the elbow. Golfers elbow impacts the tendons on the inside of the elbow and forearm and is related to the gripping motion or making a fist. Golfer’s elbow usually means pain on the inner elbow or lower arm and sometimes causes tingling in the fingers. Tennis elbow is related to the backward movement of the wrist and travels all the way up the forearm to affect the outside of the elbow. And don’t let the names fool you: golfers can certainly get tennis elbow–it just depends which wrist motion has become problematic for you.
- Rotator cuff injury: The rotator cuff covers the important group of muscles connecting the arm to the shoulder blade, and rotator cuff problems are common in athletes of all kinds, including golfers. Golf can be taxing on the shoulders: the repetitive motion involved in the golf swing can cause either an impingement (when irritated muscles swell and painfully block the space between the arm and shoulder) or a tear in the muscles or tendons in the shoulder.
- Wrist Tendonitis: Grip-related wrist tendonitis is another common repetitive motion injury in golfers. It usually occurs in the top or lead hand on the club (the left hand for a right-handed player), which often supplies power for the swing, according to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.
- Knee injuries: you may not be aware that your golf swing can also lead to damage to the knees. The twisting motions involved in golf can put stress on the knee on the non-dominant side in particular. As “Golf Fitness” points out, for right-handed golfers, the left knee bears the brunt of the impact for right-handed golfers, leading to damage to the muscles, cartilage (including the meniscus), tendons and the ACL, one of the major ligaments in the knee. Once again, Tiger Woods is a good example with multiple surgeries to his left knee over the last 25 years.
Two of the big contributors to golf injuries are incorrect form and low baseline fitness levels before hitting the course. Here are some important steps you can take to avoid injury and golf healthy:
Make sure to learn proper swing technique. According to the “Sports Health” study, the top three swing faults are early extension, reverse spine angle and reverse-C finish. The authors suggest taking out the backbend and switching to a “classic” swing or a hybrid swing.
Stay fit and lose weight if necessary (excess weight puts unnecessary pressure on the back).
Warm up and stretch before playing. Take a short walk to get muscles ready before hitting the course.
Work on core strength and building core muscles to help protect the back and knees. Stronger core muscles distribute the stress of the swing more evenly and avoid too much pressure on sensitive areas.
Invest in high-quality equipment. According to the Mayo clinic, buying clubs with grips and shafts designed to reduce impact can help prevent injury.
Can Physical Therapy Help Treat My Golf Injury?
If you wind up with a golf injury, there’s a pretty good chance it won’t go away on its own. The kinds of issues we see tend to require professional help, and physical therapy is often the solution of choice, allowing you to heal while building strength to avoid re-injury and get back to your game.
For many golf injuries, we focus on range of motion exercises with a program designed specifically for you. For back injuries in particular, we focus on building core strength with exercises including pelvic tilts, pelvic floor exercises, leg lifts, back bridges and planks, along with breath control exercises to help you create a safe swing. In many cases, an exercise program is paired with massage, ultrasound and other therapeutic techniques
Do I Need Surgery for My Golf Injury?
In some cases, we recommend surgery for more serious back, knee and wrist injuries and rotator cuff tears. Our team of orthopedic, shoulder and hand specialists can help you decide if and when surgery is needed, with an emphasis on sticking with physical therapy when possible.
Treatment for Golf Injuries at Countryside Orthopaedics
We love seeing our patients healthy and active, and we know that sports like golf are a way to make fitness a lifelong priority. At Countryside Orthopaedics and Physical Therapy, our goal is to get you back to the activities you love safely and promptly. Our staff of orthopedists and physical therapists can help you determine whether surgery is needed or whether a PT program is the best place to start. Correcting poor form with the help of physical therapists and sports pros is another important element of recovering. As always, we recommend taking it slow when returning to your sport and spending some time with a golf pro to work on adapting your grip and swing.