Golf is usually considered a low level activity, but golfers often suffer serious injuries. Over 50% of touring professionals have had to stop playing because of injuries. The motion of a golf swing, if done incorrectly, can cause injuries in many parts of the body. A golf swing involves a large trunk rotation and requires you to move both shoulders through a wide range of motion at very high speeds. Unlike professionals, amateur golfers are not as conditioned to make these motions. However, both amateur and professional golfers commonly injure their backs, elbows, shoulders, and wrists. If you have injured any of these areas, you may need to be examined by your family doctor or orthopaedist.
The most common injuries in golf are back injuries (red circles in figure). Most of these injuries are simply muscle or ligament strains that usually get better in a few weeks with rest, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, and some simple strengthening exercises. Changing technique and equipment can help golfers with chronic (long-term) back pain play around the injury. Constant bending over causes extreme stress on the muscles and joints of the lower back. The use of newer and longer golf clubs can allow your body to remain closer to an upright position and help relieve stress on your back. The elbow is the next most commonly injured area (black circles in figure). Most elbow pain results from tennis elbow or golfer's elbow. Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is an inflammation (swelling) of the tendons that connects the forearm to the elbow. The lateral tendons allow the elbow to extend (straighten). Golfer's elbow (medial epicondylitis) is an inflammation of the tendons that allow the elbow to flex (bend). Treatment consists of rest, ice, and NSAIDS. For chronic cases, cortisone injections may be used. The doctor will also suggest that you take stress off your forearm and elbow while playing. You may be able to remove some stress by changing your swing. For example, if you are right handed, swing with your left elbow bent. If you are left handed, bend your right elbow when you swing. This "classic" swing technique puts less stress on your elbow.
To avoid injuring yourself while playing golf, there are several things you can do. First, always warm up carefully before playing by hitting a few balls with your short irons. A touring professional, whose muscles are conditioned to play golf, will hit a few balls first to loosen up. The average weekend golfer typically starts out with the hardest swing of the day - the drive off the first tee. Professionals usually do not have as many injuries as amateur golfers because they play with better form. Several studies have shown that most golf injuries are a result of poor techniques. A few lessons from your local golf instructor may help you tune up your swing to avoid an injury. However, beware of trying to swing exactly like the modern professionals do. They have conditioned their bodies to tolerate a swing, which may not be ideal for the average player. If you have some injuries that hamper your golf game, there are ways to treat them so you can continue playing the game you love.
William J. Mallon, M.D.
Durham, North Carolina