By Ben Burkam, M.D.
The world’s best golfers are in Akron this week for the Bridgestone Invitational. As we marvel at their powerful swings, it is important to remember that those swings can also lead to back issues. As with so many health conditions, a little effort to prevent back injury and low back pain goes a long way. Three key areas of prevention include adequate warm-up, swing technique, and properly carrying the golf bag.
Going directly to the tee at 7 a.m., pulling out the driver, and then trying to kill the ball is putting your back at high risk for injury. Instead, a thorough warm-up before starting to golf— easy swings without hitting a golf ball, followed by stretching—is critical for the muscles to get ready for the game.
The objective of a golf swing is to develop significant club head speed to optimize ball flight. To do this requires torque (force) and torsion (twisting), which originates from the low back. Golfers should emphasize a smooth, rhythmic swing, as this produces less stress and less low back pain.
Good balance while golfing is achieved by slightly bending the knees and keeping the feet approximately shoulder-width apart. The spine should be straight, the golfer should bend forward from the hips, and weight should be distributed evenly on the balls of the feet.
Repeated bending over to pick up a golf bag can stress the low back and lead to a muscle strain. A golf bag stand that opens when the bag is set on the ground can eliminate the need to bend over repetitively. Some individuals like to carry their own golf bag to get more exercise, and while this may be a good idea, bag straps that place all the pressure on one shoulder can be hard on the back. Use dual straps on the golf bag to evenly divide the weight across the back and reduce the chances of developing low back pain from an uneven load.
Another option for exercise on the golf course, while minimizing low back strain is the use of a push cart. These allow for good aerobic activity while walking the course, but eliminate the stress on the shoulders and back of carrying your bag.
Most acute low back injuries that occur during a game of golf will get better over a couple of days to weeks. To help relieve pain and promote healing from golf-related injuries and low back pain, rest from any activity that worsens pain for 2-3 days, apply heat and/or ice, and take pain medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
If the low back pain continues for more than 2-4 weeks, a specific and definable problem may be the cause and you should schedule an appointment with your physician.