Common Golf Injuries

Causes include repetitive motion, trauma, and poor swing technique

Golf player, rear view
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People don't generally associate golf with sports injuries given the relatively sedate nature of the game. But according to a study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy in Columbus, Ohio, there are over 30,000 golf-related injuries treated in American emergency rooms every year.

Surprisingly, injuries were seen most commonly in two groups: golfers between the ages of seven and 17 (22.1 percent) and those 55 and over (21.8 percent).

In terms of hospitalization rates, older golfers were as much as five times more like to be admitted compared to younger golfers. While many of these injuries were related to a traumatic injury (such as being hit by a ball or a struck by golf swing), nearly a third (30.6 percent) were related to a strain, sprain, or stress fracture.

These numbers do not reflect non-emergency injuries which are often related to repetitive motion (overuse) injuries or the progressive strain put on the back, wrists, hips, and knees by an improper swing technique.

While a golf injury can affect any part of the body, the most common are associated with the lower back and spine, shoulder, elbow, and wrist.

Lower Back and Spine Injuries

Most lower back and spine injuries that occur in golf are related to an existing problem. Golf tends to exacerbate the issue when the following occurs:

  • Muscle strain is usually associated with a rough or forceful swing (such as happen when one "pushes" a swing) or a sudden shift in body position during the downswing.
  • Herniated disks are worsened by abnormalities in the golf swing.
  • Lumbar (back) strain commonly occurs in poorly conditioned golfers or when a player swings while standing at an acute angle (such as the edge of a water hazard or sand trap).

Since most of these injuries are acute, resting several days with a cold compress and nonsteroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAID) can usually help. If the pain is severe or persistent, see your doctor immediately.

Shoulder Injuries

Shoulder injuries can vary by whether it occurs on the leading shoulder (the shoulder positioned forward on a swing) or the non-leading shoulder. Injuries can be caused by repetitive motion, abnormal swings, or a sudden abrupt change in motion (such as hitting a rock on a downward swing).

  • Acute injuries to the leading shoulder include subacromial impingement, rotator cuff tears, and acromioclavicular joint sprain/separation.
  • Acute injuries to the non-leading shoulder include a SLAP (cartilage) tear as well as impingement and rotator cuff tears.
  • Repetitive motion injuries include shoulder tendinitis, bursitis, and adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder).

Whether acute or chronic, injuries to the shoulder usually require medical attention. In some cases, a shoulder brace or sling may be needed to temporarily restrict movement. A severe tear or joint separation may require surgery.

Regardless of the extent of the injury, physical therapy can help get you back on the green. A physical therapist will identify the biomechanics that hinder your performance and create a customized treatment plan.

In addition to providing stretching and strengthening exercises, a physical therapist can perform manual therapies to reduce pain and improve flexibility.

Elbow Injuries

Insofar as the elbow is concerned, the most common injury is medial epicondylitis (a.k.a. golfer's elbow). Golfer's elbow is a condition which causes pain where the tendons of your forearm meet the bony protrusion on the inner elbow. The pain will often radiate into the forearm and wrist.

While golfer's elbow can be caused by overuse, it can also be exacerbated by an overextended backswing or over-flexing wrist on the downswing. Golfer's elbow is most typically seen on the non-leading elbow.

Golfer's elbow is similar to lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) which develops on the outer elbow. While less common in golf, tennis elbow is most commonly seen on the leading elbow.

As repetitive motion injuries, both conditions are often accompanied by elbow bursitis. Treatment typically involves rest, NSAIDs, icing the affected, area and using an elbow brace to restrict movement.

Your doctor or physical therapist may also recommend using a method called P.O.L.I.C.E.—Protection, Optimal Loading, Ice, Compression, Elevation—an updated version of R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation).

  • Protection: During the first few days after an injury, rest the injured joint, ligament, or muscle. After a few days, gentle motion can be started while you still maintain a level of protection for the injured area.
  • Optimum Loading: Gentle range of motion exercises should be started in the days following injury onset and gradually increased over the next several days. Known as progressive loading, this helps to prevent delays in returning to normal activity due to joint and muscle tightness or muscle atrophy.
  • Ice: Applying ice may help to manage the swelling around the elbow and decrease acute pain.
  • Compression: While applying ice, compression can be added using an ACE bandage.
  • Elevation: Keeping your elbow raised above the level of your heart can help reduce swelling. 

Wrist Injuries

Wrist injuries are usually caused by an improper grip, poor swing technique, a club impact during the downswing (such as with a tree root), or overuse. Among some of the more common wrist injuries:

  • Wrist tendinitis usually develops in the leading hand which needs to bend forward on the backswing and extends backward at the end of the swing.
  • Hamate bone fractures occur when the club hits the ground abnormally and compresses the handle against the bony hooks at the end of the smaller hamate (carpal) bones.
  • Wrist sprains can occur when a club strikes an object and twists the wrist abnormally.
  • Ulnar tunnel syndrome is nerve damage to wrist caused by the repeated hammering of the club handle against the palm. This can cause pain, inflammation, and numbness and is often associated with an improper or lose grip.
  • TFCC tears occur due to forceful rotation or pulling on the wrist joint damaging the triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC). Injuries to this system of cartilage and ligaments cause pain on the ulnar side of the wrist (the side with the small finger) and clicking sounds upon moving the joint.
  • de Quervain's tenosynovitis is repetitive motion injury that causes pain and inflammation below the thumb at the wrist. This inflammation is caused by a tendon problem called stenosing tenosynovitis and is usually accompanied by a grinding sensation when moving the thumb and wrist.

Given the nature of these injuries, medical attention should be sought in order to X-ray for any damage and properly immobilize the wrist. It can be common for small wrist fractures to not be visible upon initial X-ray, so your doctor will likely splint the injury and take another set of images a week to 10 days later.

Once a fracture has been ruled out or healed, wrist injuries would also benefit from physical therapy.

A Word From Verywell

Pain and discomfort is your body's way of telling you something is wrong and should not be ignored. Talk to your doctor about treating golf injuries to prevent further joint damage and ask if physical therapy can help you.

Many golf injures are due to improper form. Once you are cleared to play again, consider taking a few lessons with a golf pro to correct swing mechanics, faults, and other postural issues. And don't forget to stretch before and after your workout to prevent injuries.

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