Get in golf shape before you tee off

The Masters is the defining moment every year that tells us golf season is under way. Golf offers so many benefits — it’s not only a terrific way to socialize and have some fun, but golfers who are regularly on the links are gaining all kinds of benefits. Golf is a wonderful way to get fresh air and exercise that will build your muscular strength and cardiovascular health.

Playing golf isn’t without injury risk, as anyone who knows the game understands. Some 15 to 20 percent of golfers suffer injuries every year. But, did you know that lower back pain is the most common golf injury?

Back injuries amount to about 20 percent of all golf injuries. The last thing you want to do is spend the season laid up because of an injury that might have been prevented. That’s why you need to know what could cause your back problems and what you can do to get yourself in golf shape.

Backs are complicated, so there’s plenty of ways they can be impacted. When you look at the areas often injured, including ligaments, muscles, joints and discs, discs are typically the most injury prone.

Back strains and muscle pulls are a recurring theme for many, too. This is especially true with older golfers. A slipped or herniated disc is a prime cause for back pain and sciatica, but it can also be a signal that you have another problem, such as a pinched nerve.

Despite what many people think, sciatica is not a condition. It’s a symptom that involves leg pain that can be absolutely devastating. It makes standing, sitting or bending over agonizing.

Other signs include numbness, weakness and a sort of pins-and-needles feeling down your leg, and can even extend into your toes. Simple everyday occurrences, including sneezing or coughing, can result in seemingly unbearable pain. Sciatica can develop gradually, or it can come on suddenly.

The reason back problems are the leading injury for golfers is that there are many repetitive motions involved in the game. The biggest is your golf swing.

The practical reality is that muscle strains and pulls often occur with rough swings, with excessively forceful swings or when you make a sudden shift during your downswing. You can also suffer a serious muscle or tendon injury because of excessive swings, which you often hear of as repetitive use injuries, as well as because of swing abnormalities.

Disc injuries can come about when you aren’t swinging properly, and it usually is the proverbial last straw that fires up an already existing condition. It might have been a condition you weren’t even aware of or became aware of from an occasional ache or pain that now has been seriously aggravated.

The obvious need begins with the no-brainer. Golf swing faults should be corrected, because getting it right can save you a whole lot of hurting. You know it’s all about mechanics and the key areas of focus, which include proper posture and rotation, backswing and overswing.

There’s a big common denominator here that is the overarching issue: flexibility. Flexibility is absolutely critical to preventing so many injuries that are typical for golfers.

Flexibility doesn’t just happen, it takes an ongoing effort to build your total body strength, and you need a stretching routine, because warming up and cooling down are very important to lessen the chance you’ll suffer a muscle or joint injury.

Aside from preventing injury, flexibility will give you a heck of a better swing. It makes sense, when you think about it. If you aren’t flexible, you can’t swing through with a full motion, and that costs you distance, as well as accuracy.

That should be incentive enough for you to commit to a regular stretching program every day that begins with a warmup routine, and you should always warm-up and stretch before a round of golf. You don’t need any special equipment, and you don’t need any special place to do your exercises. You do want a properly constructed plan that works on balance, flexibility, posture and strengthening.

Get started by seeing a physical therapist or health professional who has the specific sports training and certification to help you build the proper program. A proper program involves a custom design for you, and that’s so important because it needs to take into account your personal physical condition, any health issues you may have and any limitations that could affect what is right for you.

Without a program designed specifically for you and your goals, the reality is the exercise program will have virtually no chance of working for you. It’s not only frustrating, but it doesn’t improve your game and it doesn’t help you prevent injury.

As should be the case before starting any exercise program, see a doctor and get the OK to go forward. When you meet with your physical therapist or specially trained health sports professional, remember to share your past medical history, including any previous problems with pain and injuries, and any issues you have had crop up in the process of playing the game. You can expect your physical therapist or chosen health professional to evaluate you to determine your strength and flexibility. They’ll also likely discuss your goals.

There are some other steps you can take to keep yourself on the course: Make sure you are using the proper equipment, including shoes and clubs. It’s a good idea to get a professional fit. Stick to healthy beverages that will keep you properly hydrated. Wear the right clothing, and use sunscreen and a lip salve to protect you from the sun. Keeping an insect repellant in your bag is a good common sense idea, too. Don’t overdo it. When you’re tired, give your body a rest between games because overdoing it invites injury.

Whatever you do, don’t play hurt. That’s an unnecessary risk that cause terrible complications and makes it far worse. If you experience an injury, stop playing right away. You should see a doctor immediately, and get a proper diagnosis and the care you need to get you back out there. Expect your doctor to conduct a thorough exam that might include X-rays and other tests. You may also be referred to a physical therapist to bring you to full recovery.

Arnold Palmer once said, “What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive.” I bet you’re nodding your head in agreement. Here’s wishing you a great, injury-free season!

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.