By Nancy Maes
Back in March, Tiger Woods announced that he was withdrawing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational because he was still experiencing pain from back spasms. Gary Shapiro, MD, spine specialist with Illinois Bone and Joint Institute who is not involved in Woods’ medical treatment, says that back spasms are common in golf professionals but also in amateurs who play the game.
“Golf is a pretty tough sport on the body, even though it’s considered less dangerous than football and soccer,” Shapiro says. “It’s a high-velocity sport that generates a tremendous club speed of up to 120 miles an hour when you’re swinging. There’s a lot of torque on the lower back that can cause back spasms, also known as soft tissue injury or a strain or a sprain, to the lumbar spine.”
Shapiro also points out that the stance golfers take when they bend over to putt can put strain on the lower back.
To avoid back spasms, Shapiro recommends that golfers warm up properly before teeing off. “Eighty percent of golfers spend less than 10 minutes warming up,” he says. “They get up to the tee-box, and their first swing is with the driver, which is the hardest club in terms of speed and torque, whereas most professional golfers will warm up for much longer and usually start with some of the smaller clubs and work their way up.”
It’s important to note that according to Shapiro, over 70 percent of amateur golfers are overweight. These players, he says, should work on strengthening their core muscles with exercises such as Pilates and yoga to protect their backs.
Learning the proper technique for swinging the club is also important for preventing back spasms. “Golfers should use their hips more and not turn or torque their backs as much,” Shapiro explains. “Back spasms tend to affect amateur golfers a little more than professionals because they’re often not in as good shape and have that tendency to not warm up. And back spasms typically affect older people more than younger ones because their tissues are less resilient and don’t stretch as well.”
People who carry their own golf bags also tend to injure their lower backs. Shapiro recommends bags with double straps that balance the weight across the back to prevent the problem. A bag like this is also a thoughtful gesture when hiring a young caddy working for summer dollars.
For those who do experience back pain, the treatment is simple. Shapiro says that back spasms usually get better within a couple of weeks in the vast majority of patients. Rest, which means time away from the golf course, plays an important role in the healing process. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil and Aleve are also helpful. Physical therapy might be an option, and work with a chiropractor is another alternative.
While Woods initially declared that back spasms prevented him from participating in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the reason was more serious than that. He missed the Masters in April because he had to undergo microdiscectomy surgery.
“High-profile athletes often try to minimize their injuries,” says Shapiro who has experience treating professional athletes. “During a microdiscectomy, a piece of herniated disc material that is pressing on a nerve is removed. You would never need surgery for back spasms.”
While back spasms might keep golfers from teeing off for a short period of time, a problem such as the one Woods experienced is more serious. “If your back spasms aren’t getting better, or you’re having progressive difficulties with pain or numbness in your leg, that might suggest a different problem, and you should seek treatment [from] a spine specialist,” Shapiro advises.
So that golfers can avoid back injuries and play the sport pain free, an old adage offers the best advice: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And who knows, maybe by fixing your swing, you’ll reduce your score as well as your pain.