Getting into the Swing of Golf Season: Tips to Prevent Injury and Up Your Game

With the start of golf season and the excitement of the Masters Tournament, many recreational golfers are getting ready to tee off. “It’s a great sport that benefits both the body and the mind,” says James Wyss, MD, PT, a physiatrist at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City and at HSS Long Island in Uniondale. “Being out on the golf course is extremely therapeutic; just walking the course is really good for your body.” 

With the good weather finally here, it may be tempting for golfers to play as much as they can right away. But that’s not always a good idea if someone has been inactive all winter, says Dr. Wyss. “You have to train to play, and that means a slow return to the sport,” he says. “My general advice is to tell people to start off with half of what they think they can handle. If they think they can play four times a week, perhaps they start playing two times a week and see how it goes. Then in a slow, gradual way, increase the amount they’re playing to give their body a chance to adjust and adapt to it.”

Dr. Wyss also advises people with any kind of muscle or joint pain to have it evaluated and treated before they start playing golf. For beginners, he recommends taking a few lessons.  

Andrew Creighton, DO, a physiatrist at HSS who played Division 1 golf in college, stresses the importance of warming up to avoid injury. He wrote a blog on exercises for the perfect golf warm up. The rotation of the body involved in the golf swing puts particular stress on the lower back and hips, which are most susceptible to injury.   

Some muscle soreness after a game is not uncommon, but for persistent pain that affects one’s ability to swing the golf club, pick up the ball or walk the golf course, a visit to the doctor may be in order. Any numbness, tingling or weakness should also prompt a consultation, the experts say.

Physical therapy or an exercise regime is often prescribed. “A lot of what we do is patient education – teaching players exercises to help them move better and get stronger,” Dr. Wyss explains. “We also talk about the kinds of exercises they do when they’re not playing golf to improve their physical condition and handle golfing better.” 

Dr. Wyss adds that not all pain is related to the sport, and physiatrists ask patients about general lifestyle habits to discover factors that might be responsible for their pain. Sitting in front a computer for hours on end, for example, often leads to back pain.

Dr. Creighton emphasizes the importance of the kinetic chain or linkage system – basically, how everything is connected. “When you’re assessing the golfer, they may have back pain, but the real issue may be that their hips don’t move very well. Or if they have shoulder issues, it could be due to poor strength in their lower extremities and their core,” he says.

In addition to a thorough physical exam and discussion of symptoms, Dr. Creighton goes one step further. “A lot of golfers have video of their swing that we can assess,” he notes. “One of the key points in assessing an athlete is to be able to see them playing their sport, and in golf, it’s huge.”

Although most injuries get better on their own with the proper care, some spinal disc injuries causing persistent pain may lead a golfer to consult with a surgeon.

“They come to see me when the pain is ongoing, affects their quality of life and doesn’t improve after physical therapy or an epidural injection,” explains Sravisht Iyer, MD, a spine surgeon at HSS. “It’s often pain caused by a disc that’s pressing on a nerve, resulting in a problem such as sciatica. But only after trying everything else would someone even think about having surgery.”

Dr. Iyer says if surgery is warranted, an individualized treatment plan is developed based on the specific diagnosis and the patient’s goals. For many people, that means a microdiscectomy, a procedure that removes a small piece of the disc that is pressing on a nerve. He generally performs the surgery in a minimally invasive fashion, and patients go home the same day.  

Dr. Iyer notes that after surgery and recovery, most people can return to playing golf at their previous level. But patient education is important before they resume the sport. “Golf entails a lot of twisting of the torso, so they really need to strengthen their core muscles and make sure they have good body mechanics, which refers to their movement, posture and balance, to prevent future injury,” he says.  

The experts agree that it’s never too late to start playing golf. With the right preparation and training, it’s an excellent way to get some fresh air, benefit from exercise and enjoy the view.

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About HSS

HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the 11th consecutive year), No. 4 in rheumatology by U.S. News & World Report (2020-2021) and named a leader in pediatric orthopedics by U.S. News & World Report “Best Children’s Hospitals” list (2020-2021). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has the lowest complication and readmission rates in the nation for orthopedics, and among the lowest infection rates. HSS was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center four consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State, as well as in Florida. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation, and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Global Innovation Institute was formed in 2016 to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics, and devices. The HSS Education Institute is a trusted leader in advancing musculoskeletal knowledge and research for physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, academic trainees, and consumers in more than 130 countries. The institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally. www.hss.edu.