As a sufferer of back pain, and now a blogger about ideas for relieving and preventing back pain, I have a few related Google Alerts set up that keep me abreast of the latest news in the niche. I admittedly am not a golfer nor a big fan of golf, but I do have back pain. I knew that there must be a gold and back pain connection. I had heard about pro-golfer Tiger Woods’s ongoing back pain issues and amazing comeback last year after several surgeries and physical therapy. And not only has back pain affected Tiger’s golf game, but it is also affecting golfers at younger ages according to doctors, due in large part to the ‘X-factor’ swing
Is Golf as Bad as Contact Sports?
Yes, according to Drs Walker, Uribe, and Porter in their recent article in the Journal of Neurosurgery (2019). In the article, they even cite Woods, his debilitating pain, and subsequent comeback. I always thought that golf was a leisurely sport where men spent the day networking with a little friendly competition. While that may be partly true, the latest fad in golf swings, dubbed the “X-factor” is seriously injuring golfers. In fact, back disorders remain the top injury amongst pro and amateur golfers!
The forces that take place on the lumbar spine are astonishing. Professional golfers are putting about 1,686 pounds per square inch of force (7500 Newtons) on their spine during the downswing. That’s the weight of about eight full-size humans! Football linemen undergo comparable forces during practice on a blocking sled. Multiply that number by the average 300 swings per day that a golfer takes and it’s no wonder back pain is on the rise.
Anatomy of a Golf Swing
From what I can tell based on my limited knowledge and research, the gold swing has evolved to what has been called the “X-factor” swing to maximize speed and power. A slow backswing followed by an explosive downswing leading with the hips. If I’m wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments below. This swing is different than older golfers, whose downswing and follow through are more relaxed.
The new “X-factor” golf swing, according to Drs Walker et al. (2019), creates an immense amount of lateral force, bending the spine. See the following photos (Credit, Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine SPI)
Not Quite a New Phenomenon
Golf and backaches have been almost synonymous for quite some time, actually. A study was published in 1997 where it was reported that Japanese professional golfers’ spines showed asymmetric lumbar spine degeneration on x-rays. The study’s authors compared the golfers’ images to non-golfers’ images for control purposes. The researchers also noticed facet joint abnormalities. These are the joints that guide the movement of your spine. Drs Walker et al. (2019), mention noticing the same abnormalities in their patients who are “elite golfers.”
Over the decades, the researchers note, players have become more muscular and with the changing technique, have been crushing the spinal disc and associated facet joints. The good doctors even coined a term for it, “repetitive traumatic discopathy (RTD)” (Drs Walker et al., 2019).
But It’s Not Just the Backswing
Nope, the addition of the explosive downswing adds an extra-layer of injury to the lower back. The downswing results in a “crunch” on the side of the vertebrae putting additional strain on the disc and facet joints. I’m beginning to wonder if golfing is worth it!
Dr. Walker believes that Tiger’s issues cast a spotlight on a largely under-recognized issue among modern golfers. His recommendation: any golfer experiencing back pain, amateur or pro, should seek medical help. Preferably sooner, rather than later.
What Can be Done About Golf and Back Pain
I’ve heard many doctors, and physical therapists warn that sports injuries can be avoided with a good warm up. It turns out, golf is no different. It is important to warm up and train properly, which is why working with a physical therapist that is familiar with treating golfers is recommended. I do not claim to know what those particular exercises are.
Phil Mickelson suggests swinging the golf club the old fashioned way. He asserted at the 2016 Masters that one could play golf for a lifetime if you swing the club properly, and this violent way the young guys swing is not the proper way to swing a golf club.
Ben Shear, who is a fitness advisor for Golf Digest suggests that strengthening and improving flexibility in the muscles of the low, middle, and upper back can be a way to avoid back pain. Also recommended are stretching and improving core muscles. Although, I am not an expert, I found this video on YouTube by an expert that shows exercises that help with back pain in golfers:
What did you think? Let me know in the comments below and check out these other suggestions from Amazon:
Walker, C. T.MD, Uribe, J. S.MD, & Porter, R. W.MD. (2019). Golf: a contact sport. Repetitive traumatic discopathy may be the driver of early lumbar degeneration in modern-era golfers, Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine SPI, , 1-4. Retrieved Feb 9, 2019, fromhttps://thejns.org/view/journals/j-neurosurg-spine/aop/article-10.3171-2018.10.SPINE181113.xml