It’s called the game of a lifetime.
But many golfers go through a lifetime of back pain after years of swinging the stick.
The injuries can end the fun. And they can end careers.
“Back issues are almost inevitable in golf due to the natural movements of the golf swing,” said Albuquerque native Notah Begay III, a four-time PGA Tour winner from 1999-2000. “It’s not the speed of the swing that produces stress, but stopping the motion once the ball leaves the clubface. A herniated disc in my lower back is what eventually ended my career on the PGA Tour, and I was more susceptible due to the lack of stability in my hips and (lower) back.
“A strong core and flexibility are essential for those young golfers wanting to incorporate preventative components to their workout routine that also benefit performance.”
But what about those of us who aren’t so sprite? Those who have long since taken junior golf lessons, and have trouble getting out of bed or standing up straight without massive pain?
Are severe back problems the end of it all for the weekend golfer?
“Not in most cases,” said Dr. Beau Hightower. “It depends on gender, how much experience they have and the pain level. But so many back issues are treatable. Of course, weekend warriors are more likely to get hurt than guys who have lessons, because they haven’t been taught the proper way to swing a golf club. So they’re doing the same repetitive motion, but in the wrong way.
“So if we can access them and correct them, whether that be through instruction or exercise, we can teach them to maintain the overactive and underactive muscles in proper relationship – which is fairly simple do.”
There are nearly as many philosophies on how to address golfers’ back injuries as swings themselves.
There are spine and pain management clinics, physical therapists, massage therapists, stimulation devices such as TENS units, chiropractors, exercise therapists and, of course, surgeons.
“Surgery is the very, very last option,” one spine doctor, who didn’t want to be named for this story, told the Journal . “It should be avoided unless all else fails. And even then, there are times when surgery isn’t going to help. And there is no guarantee that it will work.”
Hightower, a La Cueva High and University of New Mexico graduate who played football for both schools, is the sports doctor for Jackson-Winkeljohn – working closely with Diego Sanchez – and USA Track & Field.
He played two years of football at Colorado State before transferring to UNM, has master’s degrees in exercise science and neuroscience (which puts more cognitive thought into understanding the pain), is pursuing a doctorate in functional neuroscience, has a chiropractic background and is a corrective exercise specialist.
His titles: MS, DC, CSCS, CES, FMS, MMACS.
In other words, “it allows me to look through different lenses.”
And Hightower also works closely with Puerto del Sol pro Todd Kersting – longtime rated one of New Mexico’s top golf instructors – to help golfers deal with, and avoid, injuries.
Kersting – who calls Hightower “a one-stop body shop” – believes that one of the main problems with backs and golf is simply the traditional golf swing.
“Many times we chalk it up to ‘Father Time’ holding us back from improving and sometimes deciding to quit the game,” Kersting said. “PGA professionals do their best to adjust the over-bent knee posture or over-hunched upper back, suggesting a golf motion to reduce the pain especially in the lower back. “Personally, I’ve learned the more my students tilt more from the hip joints to engage the glutes and stay balanced under the knots of their shoes, the easier their shoulders can wind up around their core. The core can store up to 80 percent of the energy for an efficient motion in sports, especially in golf.”
Kersting points to a recent study by the National Golf Foundation, which showed that 60 percent of all amateur golfers experience injuries and 50 percent of professional golfers are forced to retire because of golf related injuries with the lower back being the highest percentage.
Because of that, many golfers obviously seek medical professionals in numerous fields.
And many professionals seek golfers, requiring patients to have multiple follow-ups, often for many years.
Hightower says finding the root of a problem with a professional is key. However, it’s up to patient to do the homework for better health – not continued visits to a doctor’s office.
“You don’t go to a dentist every week,” said Hightower, president of Elite Ortho-Therapy and Sports Medicine. “A dentist checks you out, hands you a toothbrush and toothpaste, tells you to brush your gums and floss and come back in six months. You’re responsible for your dental hygiene.
“What we do is physical hygiene. We provide the tools to help you take care of yourself. It’s irresponsible to overdo treatments. If you get an adjustment and it feels great, but in a couple of days the problem is back, that’s an indication that you haven’t addressed the issue.”
Hightower says most golfers’ back problems are caused by fasciitis, when the fascisa thicken and become inflamed or swollen.
He says the areas become stiff because they don’t have the same circulatory supply as the muscle. He describes it as being similar to taffy. When it gets hard, it is brittle. But when it is massaged, it is soft and flexible.
The proper exercises, stretches and massages can create the blood flow to alleviate many forms of back pain.
And it can also get you back on the links.
“Elite players like Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy have all experienced varying degrees of back injuries over the past two years,” said Begay, a commentator for Golf Channel. “Based on recent performance (McIlroy dominating the British Open), it’s very clear that players can overcome these issues and continue playing at a high level but preventative measures are a necessity.”
As well as making those triple-bogeys on Albuquerque courses – with the only pain being a bruised ego.