How to Return to Golf Safely after a Back Injury
Injuries of the lower spine are very common in both the amateur and professional golfer. The golf swing creates a tremendous amount of stress and torque on the lumbar spine. Back pain plays havoc with our golf game. It does not allow us the flexibility or strength to maintain a proper golf swing. Even some of the most famous golfers deal with back pain and have had to have extensive physical therapy or even surgery to help get rid of their pain. You might recognize some of these professionals with a history of back problems: Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Fred Couples and Tiger Woods just to name a few. In the following article we will talk about common causes of back pain and how to safely return to golf after back injury or surgery.
Recovering from Back Pain that did not require surgery
Most commonly, back pain is treated with conservative, non-surgical care. The first step of recovery after a flare-up of back pain is rest. Resting the back for the first 5-7 days is a must to help decrease the inflammation within the tissues. If you are able to see your doctor or a physical therapist during the first week after your injury, they can prescribe medication or exercise to help progress the healing process. The second step is to regain full flexibility and mobility of your spine. Gentle stretches in all planes of motion of the lumbar spine will help, but be careful not to stretch too aggressively to re-inflame your back. The third step is adding strength and stability to your low back and core muscles to help support your spine during a golf swing. The strengthening exercises should be pain free but yet fatiguing to build spine strength.
A return to the golf course program is critical. I recommend starting on the putting green and chipping green. Slowly working your way to the driving range. Start on the driving range with your short irons. After successfully swinging your short irons without a flare up, progress to your long irons. Increase to fairway woods and your driver if you did not have any flare-ups with your long irons. Having confidence in your back is very important before you return to the golf course. I recommend being pain free for at least one week on the range before returning to the golf course.
Recovering after Back Surgery
Recovery after surgery depends on how bad the condition was before surgery, the type of surgery performed, and how the golfers body responds to healing. Make sure you follow all of your surgeon’s orders and restrictions. The two most common back surgeries for golfers are a Discectomy or Microdiscectomy and a Lumbar Fusion.
Most patients can start rehabbing their back approximately four weeks after the procedure. Physical therapy focuses on regaining flexibility of the spine initially, progressing into strength of the low back and core musculature. As long as the body is healing well, most golfers can return to the driving range around 2 months and progress from short irons to long irons. Tee shots and fairway woods are usually started around the third month after surgery. Golfers can start playing 9 holes after three months but I recommend they walk instead of ride in a golf cart to gain the extra exercise. After approximately four months, golfers can return to playing 18 holes.
Returning to golf after a spinal fusion will be much longer in order to allow the spine to heal correctly around the internal fixation of the fusion. Physical therapy usually does not begin until approximately three months after the surgery to allow bone healing to occur. First phase of rehab after a lumbar fusion is gentle stretching and strengthening at approximately three to four month post-surgery. If physical therapy is progressing well, then the golfer can start lightly swinging at around six months.
As described before, the same progression from green to tee is taken before the golfer returns to the course. As always, the medical professionals and golfer need to listen to the golfers body to know how fast or slow to progress them back to the golf course.