Is Golf Bad for Your Back?

Modern golf swings have triggered an epidemic of back pain among players, according to new research.

Over the last two decades, the focus on strength over style has led to common spinal injuries among both profession and amateur golfers. More than half of professional golfers suffer from back injuries, with a third of weekend enthusiasts facing similar injuries.

The Big Swing

The Barrow Neurological Institute looked in particular at golfing legend Tiger Woods, who made a comeback this year after taking time out because of serious back issues. Woods, at the April 2018 Master’s Tournament, appeared to be back to full health when he swung his club at speeds measuring up to 129mph—but it’s this very thing that most likely set him out in the first place.

The modern “X-factor” swing favoured by many professionals tries to get the maximum rotation of the player’s shoulders relative to their hips at the top of the backswing. The big rotation creates wound-up potential energy (the X-factor) but it also comes at a cost, twisting the lumbar spine.

It’s not just the X-factor swing—it’s also the downswing that can contribute to spine injuries. During an explosive downswing, lateral flexion can result in a ‘crunch’ of the side of the spine, putting strain on the disc and facet joints on one side of the spine, the researchers noted.

Over time, these powerful and fast swings can result in a damaging process that the researchers call “repetitive traumatic discopathy” (RTD).

“It’s still a theory,” said Dr. Corey Walker from the Barrow Neurological Institute to the BBC, “but we are starting to see the late stages of this in some of our patients. We are seeing younger and younger elite level golfers with degeneration in their lower back.”

Experiencing pain

Before you give up your golf clubs, consultant physiotherapist Nigel Tilley, who has worked on the PGA European Tour, the Ryder Cup and with Team GB, said the research should be treated with some caution.

“If you scanned a lot of people in their 40s, you would see some disc degeneration,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the necessarily have a back problem with it though.”

Any golfer, elite or not, should be prioritizing strengthening and conditioning exercises in the gym, which will help them reduce the possibility of injury. A good warm before playing up can also alleviate the possibility of injury.

But if you are experiencing back pain, the researchers at Barrow recommend visiting a doctor to check it out, just to be on the safe side.

See also: The Most Common Golf Injuries

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