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Why Golf Isn’t Good For Spine Health

It’s golf season, but maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to jump onto the course. While golf may seem like it’s easy on the joints and muscles, this is the biggest misconception about the sport. Golf is linked to a variety of spine and joint injuries, stemming directly from the unnatural twisting motion during a swing.

Is The Spine Meant To Twist?

The spine is made up of 26 interconnected bones, called vertebrae, which are sandwiched between cushion-like discs of cartilage that brace the impact of daily movements. The spine consists of 7 cervical (neck) vertebrae, 12 thoracic (chest) vertebrae, and 5 lumbar (low back) vertebrae. At the very end of the lumbar vertebrae, there is the sacral vertebra and the coccyx (tailbone).

The spine is designed to perform a few different movements: bending or rounding forward, tilting sideways, extending or arching backward, and twisting. However, only certain parts of the spine are meant to be moved in a certain direction. It is incredibly easy to overdo it and cause yourself a back injury, especially in the sport of golf.

The ability to rotate the spine increases as you move up the spinal column, as does the size of the boney vertebrae. The sacrum is solidly wedged between the hip bones; it can move up and down, but there is no twist available to this part of the spine. Similarly, the coccyx doesn’t move much in relation to the rest of the spine.

Moving up, the lumbar vertebrae have very little rotational capabilities. These are the largest vertebrae in the spine and their main job is to bear and transfer the weight of the head and upper spine to the legs. That’s why these vertebrae are so large; it’s hard enough to hold up the entire upper body without adding twisting to the mix.

The thoracic vertebrae, also called the mid-spine, have a bit more rotational abilities than the lower back but are still fairly limited. This means that even though you may be physically able to twist your mid-back during a golf swing, it’s not actually meant to turn this way. The cervical vertebrae have the greatest range of motion. These seven vertebrae in the neck are made for twisting and having less bony restriction than those in the lower spine.

Not All Spine Twists Are Safe

Twists need to start from the very base of the spine. This doesn’t mean that you should be using your lumbar vertebrae to twist; use the core tone in the pelvic floor and abdomen to support the extension of the spine before rotating. A lack of twisting ability is usually linked to a lack of core strength. If the core (obliques, abdominals, pelvic floor, and back muscles) is weak, tight, and inflexible, you will have a hard time fully extending the spinal column, which is integral to a healthy twist.
Similarly, the upper body muscles (rhomboids and pectorals) must be loose and flexible to perform a proper twist. Even if the core and back are willing to rotate, the chest and upper body won’t be able to follow through properly. Nearly all of the muscles in the body need to be supple and properly loosened and strengthened for the spine to twist properly.

What Happens When You Hit a Golf Ball?

The golf swing calls for the spine to rotate, at a tilt, over and over, at excessive speed. Not what the doctor ordered! As if this action wasn’t already bad for the spine, it is interrupted midway by the jolt of impact from hitting the golf ball. If a golf swing is done on an inflexible spine and core, the lumbar region assumes more of the burden, increasing the risk of a back injury.

Not every golfer will have the same swing. However, a large number of golfers out there, regardless of skill level, are uneducated about how to execute a healthy swing. This is largely due to the spread of misinformation, young golfers trying to emulate professional players, and professional players overcompensating during their swing.

Let’s go back to one particular edition of Vogue published in the 1980s, which contained a golf article. It called for players to maintain a flexed right knee during the backswing, to build a stable base for the shoulders and torso to turn against. This was a good practice, according to them, as it ‘loaded the body like a spring’. Unfortunately, they unknowingly gave out poor advice to golfers of all skill levels. Not only is this a bad way to hit a golf ball, but it’s also a great way to get hurt.

Golf swings have changed over the years. In general, the swing has gotten shorter, faster, and tighter. Golf analysts claim this turns the body into a ‘ticking time bomb’; sooner or later, the spine will be damaged. This is especially dangerous among young, amateur golfers who are unaware of these detrimental habits. Sometimes, ego overpowers alignment and you’ll see golfers hurting themselves for a more powerful swing.

proper golf swing should be long and fluid, with a full release of the lower body. A good way to prevent an unintentional injury is to wield lighter clubs with larger, spin-reducing sweet spots. Also, golfers should focus on improving the flexibility of the hips and mid-back. This will help to lower the stress placed on the low back in the golf swing. Focus on back mobility, golf posture, hip flexibility, and correcting a limited golf follow-through.

Most Common Golf Injuries:

  • Back injuries: Hypertrophy, also called golfer’s back, is the enlargement of the facet joints in the lumbar segments of the spine. If you play the game for long enough, chances are you’ll have some form of this. It is also being seen increasingly more often in younger players. Also, you may see inflammation, herniation, or advanced degeneration of the spinal discs.
  • Elbow tendonitis: Medial epicondylitis, also called golfer’s elbow, causes soreness and inflammation on the outer tendon or the inner tendon of the elbow.
  • Rotator cuff (shoulder): Golfers can develop tendinitis, bursitis and shoulder separation from the repetitive movements. Improving your swing can help; you can even wear shoulder and clavicle support to ease the pressure on the shoulders and prevent rotator cuff tears.
  • Knee pain: At the beginning of the swing, a common mistake is to strain a weak knee to stabilize the hip rotation. The extreme force applied to the knee can cause torn or sprained ligaments and kneecap injuries.
  • Wrist tendonitis: The repetitive movement of the wrist during the swing and the force applied to the tendons responsible for wrist movements increases the risk for wrist pain.

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