Tips for preventing and treating back pain on the golf course

April 19, 2011 

Jim Furyk bends down to size up the ninth hole at Harbour Town Golf Links during last year's Heritage golf tournament, which he won. Hilton Head Hospital spinal surgeon Dr. K. Craig Boatright said simple bending, such as bending down to pick up a ball, results in more back injuries than swinging the club.

FILE/THE ISLAND PACKET

  • PREVENTION

    Tips to avoid back injury while golfing:

    • Warm up before your round with 8 minutes of low-impact cardio.
    • After warming up, take a few gentle practice swings.
    • Stretch daily (first thing in the morning and before bed).
    • Get at least 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week.
    • Have your swing analyzed; poor alignment can exacerbate back problems.
    • If you must carry your bag, use two straps to evenly distribute the weight.
    • Avoid triggers such as repeated bending and stooping whenever possible.

    TREATMENT

    According to spinal surgeon Dr. K. Craig Boatright, time is the most potent medicine for back pain, but there are things you can do to
    ease your suffering:

    • Take an anti-inflammatory. If you take other medication, check with your doctor before using anti-inflammatory drugs.
    • Take some time off your feet (one to two days is best).
    • Resume gentle exercise, such as walking, and normal daily activity as soon as possible.
    • Stay off the golf course until all symptoms have subsided.

Spinal surgeon Dr. K. Craig Boatright of Hilton Head Hospital often hears the same story from many Lowcountry golfers. It usually starts something like this:

"I went to pick up my golf ball, and I couldn't stand back up."

Or: "I bent down, reached into the cup and felt a little pinch. It didn't really hurt but later that night it felt like I was going to die."

This being Heritage week, when Hilton Head Island and the surrounding area revolves (even more than usual) around all things golf, we asked Boatright to provide some insight into some of the most common back problems suffered by players, and what can be done to treat and prevent them.

While the majority of injuries are sprains (usually from bending rather than swinging the club), Boatright finds herniated discs are not uncommon among golfers older than 50. He points out that as people age, portions of the lumbar region stiffen. And, because golfers tend to put stress on this area when they swing, sometimes they suffer a spinal herniation in their lower back.

"The disc is like a radial tire," Boatright said. "It has a really tough, laminated lining surrounding a shock absorbent center. Under too much stress the core bulges through the lining, causing inflammation which can impinge the nerves. If pain radiates down the legs it may be a spinal herniation."

Another common problem is lumbar spinal stenosis, a condition affecting many in their 60s, which makes standing upright for long periods painful. For players with this condition, Boatright recommends keeping a slight forward bend to relieve pressure. It's also not a good idea to walk the golf course, so get a cart. If you're looking for exercise, use a stationary bike.

Boatright also cautions that stretching alone is not a fail-safe answer to back problems for golfers. "Heading out first thing in the morning and trying to hit a 400-yard drive is a sure-fire way to sprain back muscles, even if a person has stretched out, because the muscles are still cold," Boatright said. Ligaments and muscles need increased temperature and blood flow in order to have the elasticity necessary to perform during a golf swing.

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