Many of us will experience a backache at some point in our lives. Little wonder. We place a lot of demands on our back, which is comprised of strong bones, ligaments and tendons, large muscles and highly sensitive nerves.
The spine, or backbone, is the center of support for the upper body. This column of bones and cartilage extends from the base of our skull to the pelvis, enclosing and protecting the spinal cord.
A healthy spine is both highly flexible and very strong. Its strength holds up our head and shoulders and supports our upper body. It allows us to stand up straight. The flexibility of the spine enables us to bend and twist.
The spine is not one long rigid bone. It consists of 24 small bones called vertebrae that are stacked in a column from the pelvis to the base of our skull. These bones connect to create a canal that protects the spinal cord. The vertebrae are divided into four regions:
- Cervical: neck spine
- Thoracic: ribcage or chest spine
- Lumbar: low back spine
- Sacral: the flat bone at the base of your spine. The vertebrae here are fused and do not move.
The Curves of the Spine
The spine is not perfectly straight; it has natural curves. If you were looking at the spine from the side, you would see that it is curved like an elongated 'S'. These natural curves are very important. When properly maintained, they give the spine full mobility and provide stability for the backbone and surrounding trunk. Good posture is important to maintain the health of our spine.
Spinal Cord and Nerves
The spinal cord is a cylinder of nerve tissue. Roughly the thickness of a finger, it extends from the skull to the lower back, traveling through the middle part of each stacked vertebra, called the central canal. Nerves branch out from the spinal cord through openings in the vertebrae and carry messages between the brain and the muscles.
Structures called intervertebral discs are located between each vertebrae. They are flat and round, and about half an inch thick. Their main purpose is to provide shock absorption and allow mobility between the vertebrae.
The discs have been likened to a jelly donut in terms of their configuration. They have an outer ring of firm, spongy, malleable material and an inner core composed of a jelly-like substance.
Most of us have heard of a "herniated disc" and may even know someone with this painful problem. Discs can 'herniate' when excessive stress is placed on one area of the disc. This can occur as a result of prolonged poor posture or a sudden, rapid movement (most often when we bend or rotate our body, the very positions assumed during a golf swing!).
The spine is supported and controlled by several layers of muscles that perform different actions, yet work together in a harmonious fashion to support the spine, hold the body upright and allow the trunk to move, twist and bend.
Long and thick muscles span much of the back and function like guide wires, protecting the spine from excessive and sudden movement.
Deep and thinner muscles connect from the rib cage to the pelvis and hips. Together, these muscle groups act as a natural corset to provide stability and a foundation from which the hips and pelvis can derive power. This is known as CORE MUSCULATURE.
Normal Range of Motion
Normal range of motion of the spine can vary, but a lack of it may contribute to the development of neck or back injuries. The average golfer should have normal range of motion of the spine in four directions. These can be assessed as follows:
- Flexion: the golfer should be able to bend over at the hips and touch the mid-shin pain-free.
- Extension: the golfer should be able to perform a mini back bend with hands on hips with no pain.
- Side-bending: the golfer should be able to side bend, sliding the hand down the leg so that the hand touches the knee pain-free.
- Rotation: the golfer should be able to rotate the spine while maintaining square hips equally to both sides without pain.
Normal Range of Motion during the Swing
Maintaining normal range of motion of the spine during the swing will ensure proper posture at address, impact and follow through without requiring another body part to overdo. The normal range of motion needed at these points during the swing is as follows:
- Address: Trunk leans forward from the hip joints at 45 degrees with a straight spine. The shoulders are vertically in line with your knees and slightly in front of your hips.
- Impact: Trunk leans slightly forward from the hip joints with a straight spine. The shoulders are in front of the hips when viewed from the side, and shoulders are not rounded
- Follow Through: Trunk is bending slightly back and toward the right side with shoulders in line with hips and left shoulder slightly higher than right.
Golfers with a decreased range of spinal rotation may benefit from spike-less shoes which will allow their legs to rotate on the ground more. They may also consider modifying their stance so it is wider, with both legs slightly turned toward the target line. This will start the golfer in more of a follow-through stance.
Adequate range of motion is important not just for the spine, but also for the hips and shoulders. A lack of rotation at these joints can force the spine to rotate more than is appropriate or comfortable.
A physical therapist can perform a proper screening to quickly and efficiently evaluate rotation and side bending, as well as upper spine extension.
If you are a golfer whose range of motion is reduced, it might be a good idea to begin a rehabilitation program for restoring range of motion to the hips, shoulders and ankles, and to build optimal flexibility throughout the upper and lower body.