If golf is a noncontact sport played at a snail’s pace, why are so many golfers driving to their doctor’s office instead of the golf course? Here’s a clue: When preparing to address the ball, the club shaft is drawn back, the hips and shoulders rotate, and the spine is twisted like a corkscrew. Then the whole process rapidly reverses itself in order to swiftly deliver the club to its date with the ball.
It’s this twisting of the lower spine, multiplied over 18 holes, that can lead to severe back problems.
Excruciating pain can arc across the back like a powerful electric shock. Unfortunately, this problem is almost as common to recreational golfers as the gaudy outfits they parade around in.
In many cases, back pain is triggered by bad posture. “Most people slouch throughout the day, which leads to immobility in the back, legs, arms, and neck and eventual soreness and pain. This is something they bring to the golf course with them,” explains Vicky Wyder, a Warren, New Jersey, physical therapist who works out of the Royce Brook Academy of Golf in Hillsborough, New Jersey.
Wyder works exclusively with recreational and professional golfers enrolled in BACK to GOLF, a national hands-on program that teams injured golfers with a PGA/LPGA teaching pro and a physical therapist to evaluate their golf swing and show them how to perform it properly. The program also assesses flexibility and midsection strength and suggests ways to improve.
“Most golfers are not in shape to play the game,” says Wyder. “They’re neither strong nor flexible through the midsection and that’s the root of most back problems.”
The golf swing is explosive and involves a coordinated rotation of the hips and shoulders and slight movement in the low back. With club speed often exceeding 100 miles an hour at impact with the ball, whenever flexibility is lacking, all the stress from the golf swing angle can be placed on the low back. And that’s when back problems develop–oftentimes serious ones–because the lower spine is forced to twist in an unnatural way.
“I’ve operated on many golfers who have herniated their disks while playing or damaged their facet joints–the bony protuberances located at the back of each vertebra,” says Dr. Robert G. Watkins, an orthopedist and director of the Center for Spinal Surgery in Los Angeles.
Watkins, who was the consultant to the PGA and Seniors Tour for 17 years, recently participated in a half-day golf symposium sponsored by the North American Spine Society at their annual meeting in New Orleans. Along with a teaching pro, physical therapist, and orthopedist, Watkins and his colleagues took the golf-playing spine experts through the mechanics of the golf swing, correcting setup errors and pointing out various flaws in their golf practice routine that could lead to long-term and severely debilitating back problems.
“By showing these back specialists how to safely improve their own golf game, we hope they’ll then be able to better help their golf-playing patients,” says Watkins. Being inflexible dramatically reduces the distance you can hit the ball.
“Many golfers have tight hamstrings and they end up rotating their spine instead of their hips when they swing,” says Wyder. “The spine is not meant to rotate, but only to tilt forward and back. Sure, it can go a little from side to side, but inflexible golfers who can’t move their hips rotate their spine instead when they get their clubs back and then again on the follow-through.”
With loads as much as seven times their body weight placed on their spine during the typical swing, they’re a back accident just waiting to happen. Part of the answer to over-rotating the spine, says Wyder, is to concentrate on proper posture, suck in your gut to stabilize the spine, and maintain proper foot placement and swing mechanics. All of these techniques are taught by a qualified instructor.
Build Core Strength
“This is a stressful game on the spine, so get in shape to practice golf,” warns Watkins, who says that most back injuries could be prevented if only golfers would devote some time each day to stretching and strengthening exercises specifically designed to keep them limber, balanced, and in the swing.
Golf involves an orchestra of body parts acting in concert to produce a symphony of efficient movement, speed, and power needed to rocket the ball down the fairway. One of the primary aims of BACK to GOLF is to strengthen the “core” muscle group of the body that supports and protects the spine. The core includes the muscles of the trunk and pelvis. In other words, the body’s center of gravity, the place from which most golf movement originates. When these muscles are strong and flexible, they’re able to absorb the stress of the golf swing.
In the quest for “core stability,” abdominal exercise predominate and the “dead bug” (see sidebar) exercise is a major building block. This exercise taxes the abdominals, building real control for the real world–and this means the golf course, of course.
And don’t underestimate the importance of having a golf pro analyze your swing on a regular basis. This person can tell where you need to be stronger and more flexible in order to hit the ball with more power without straining your back.
Article By: Gerald Couzens, Medical Writer