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QUESTION: I am a dedicated (fanatic?) golfer, but I have a weak back that often interferes with my golf. Are there exercises that I can do to solve this problem? I am sure that many other golfers would appreciate this advice too. Thank you.

ANSWER: I will use some ideas from an excellent article by Dr. Bill Mallon in the June issue of Golf Digest to answer this question.I was surprised to find out that, at some time or another, 90 percent of the population suffers a back injury that results in absences from work. In terms of lost wages and medical care, lower-back pain is annually responsible for $20 billion to $30 billion lost to the American economy. According to Mallon, there are more than 100 different causes of lower-back pain. The most common is a strain or sprain of the muscles or ligaments in the back. This problem usually heals with a few days of rest and treatment. Other common causes are pressure on the nerves from either a herniated disk or degenerative arthritis in the back.

Degenerative arthritis is probably fairly common among professional golfers and amateurs who play a lot because of the continuous wear and tear given to the back by the high-torque movement of the golf swing, which can cause the bone to wear out and cause little spurs to develop (spinal stenosis), or the disks between the bones can wear out.

The problem of herniated disks is a little harder to understand without a knowledge of the anatomy of the back. The spinal column is made up of 33 vertebrae stacked up like blocks. The vertebrae are separated by intervertebral disks that act as a cushion between them and maintain space for the nerves to exit. If the disks herniate, pressure is placed on the nerves, causing pain in the back and down the legs, or occasionally causing numbness in the legs or muscle weakness.

The most common cause of acute back pain in golfers, and the cause most treatable in terms of exercise and good care, is related to muscle strains and sprains. The spinal column is supported by four sets of muscles: the lower-back muscles, the abdominal muscles and the muscles along either side of your abdomen, called the obliques. If one set of these muscles is strained, the added stress on the others may cause problems.

Most people have weak, often distended abdominal muscles, and very tight, strong lower-back muscles that are overworked because of the weaker abdominal muscles. These muscles can be injured easily because they are so tight. Weight loss and exercise to tighten the abdominals and stretch the lower-back muscles are helpful for decreasing the potential for the lower-back pain often associated with golf. I will outline a group of exercises that can be done for this purpose in next week's column.

On the golf course, it is important to warm up carefully before playing. Rushing to the first tee with a cold, tight back is an easy way to cause back pain. Mallon also recommends a change in basic swing mechanics to make your swing more like the loose, easy swing exemplified by Bobby Jones rather than copying the tight coil and reverse C position of some of the modern touring pros. Even using a longer putter and avoiding golf carts can help decrease the incidence of lower-back pain associated with playing golf.