A Good Walk Spoiled, Often by an Injury

The New York Times—July 6, 2009

Within the realm of sports injuries, there are a few sports that come to mind immediately as ones that result in injuries season after season - football, with its high-impact tackling and running, for example. But golf? Believe it or not, golf’s high swings and repetitive twisting motions can be just as taxing on the joints and spine as a hit from a 300-lb safety.

Vijay Vad, MD, a sports medicine physiatrist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, wrote the book "Golf Rx" after he did a clinical study of PGA Tour players with bad backs. Now, nearly half the patients he sees - about 400 to 500 people annually - are golfers.

"People would be shocked to know how common golf injuries are, especially to the back," Vad said. "It comes from overuse, it comes from bad technique and it comes from a lack of core fitness. The perception that you don't need to stretch or prepare yourself for golf as you would another physical activity is maybe the biggest part of the equation."

The reasons for golf injuries are varied, but decidedly not as obvious as ones in other, more active sports.

For example, according to Vad's PGA Tour study, lower-back problems might actually be caused by a lack of hip flexibility. Examining pro players, he discovered that those with less flexibility in their lead hip, the left hip in a right-handed golfer, had more back problems than those with limber hips.

Here's how that makes sense: successful golfers have to swing a club about 80 to 110 miles per hour and you have to bring that high-speed swing to a stop in about a second. As Vad wrote, "Try asking your car to do that."

Various shock absorbers in the body handle the deceleration forces, but for those who do not have much flexibility in their hips, the forces tend to work themselves out in the lower back. Do it 100 times, or 300 times counting practice swings, and you've got a strained back.

There are ways to avoid strained backs and stiff joints for golfers who are serious about their sport, but they are not necessarily practicing more. Instead, Vad advises adding a training regimen that strengthens the core and increases flexibility of the joints all around, not just those used directly in swings.

Vad developed golf-specific exercises to help prevent injury and to add distance to your drives. They can be as simple as lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Then alternate bringing one knee to your chest. Another begins standing upright, with the feet shoulder-width apart. Twist to touch the fingertips of your right hand to your left ankle. Do the same with the left fingertips to the right ankle.

"Ten to 15 minutes of core exercises done two to three days a week can accomplish a lot for your golf swing," Vad said. "Even leaning against a wall and stretching your hamstrings before you play will help. Drinking plenty of fluids can prevent a back injury."

Dehydrated muscles are fatigued, which makes them more likely to strain and tear under the stress of a golf swing, Vad said.

Preventative measures like these may not improve your swing, but they will certainly go far in terms of staying away from otherwise avoidable injuries and strains during the game.

Read the full article at nytimes.com.

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