Golf is classified as a "low-impact sport", but its statistics and biomechanics both tell a different story.
60% of amateurs and 40% of pro golfers suffer at least one injury per season, and the majority of golfers will develop chronic or recurring pain in at least one of the following areas: back, elbow, shoulders, wrist and hands, and knees.
Biomechanical studies of the modern golf swing reveal intense rotational or torque stress on the muscles and joints in exactly these areas. That’s because the swing involves moving from one range of motion extreme to another at explosive velocities: tour pros average just 0.75 seconds on the backswing, and 0.25 seconds on the downswing. (Surprisingly, however, it may actually be the follow-through that causes the most grief, because it involves eccentric contractions of the muscles in the torso and back, which strain against the momentum of the swing as you decelerate and finish.)
Repetition further exacerbates the mechanical stress golf puts on the body, as you work to improve your distance, consistency and accuracy with deliberate practice.
There are two main causes of the pain and stiffness you feel after a round of golf.
The first is tightness or contraction in both muscles and fascia, which occurs when they are overstrained. The golf swing requires multiple muscle groups to expand and contract rapidly in fractions of a second, and this taxes your fast-twitch muscles, which are capable of rapid, explosive movement but get fatigued much more quickly than your slow-twitch muscles. When fatigued, these fast-twitch fibres can contract and seize up, temporarily losing the ability to relax normally, and leading to stiffness and pain.
Repeated exertion also affects the fascia, which is the thin, stretchy sheath of connective tissue that covers every muscle and organ in your body, holding them in place and connecting the different muscle groups together. When irritated by overwork and repetitive movement, the fascia goes from smooth and slippery to tight, knotted and clingy, developing adhesions and constricting and contorting the muscles and joints it surrounds to cause stiffness, soreness, and pain.
Second, the mechanical stress placed on the body by the explosive forces of the swing lead to microinjury (or, in more severe cases, actual injury) to your soft tissue. This includes microscopic tears and strains in the fibres that make up your muscles, as well as in the tissues (e.g. tendons, ligaments, and cartilage) that make up your joints. These microtears are painful but normal, and are nothing to be alarmed about in the long term, as long as you take the steps to recover properly.
Effective golf pain solutions should thus address both these root causes (tension/contraction and microdamage), and all three types of affected tissue (muscle, joints, and fascia). Read on to discover the 5 basic steps you can take to treat and resolve golf pain.
Drinking water will not resolve post-golf pain, but dehydration can worsen it -- which should come as no surprise given that water makes up about 79% of muscle tissues, 70-80% of joint cartilage, and 70% of the fascia. Dehydration delays recovery by slowing down muscle protein synthesis, the process by which muscles are repaired and built during and after intense exercise. It also exacerbates joint pain in areas like the shoulders, hips, knees, hands and feet, due to its effect on the synovial fluid-- the egg white-like liquid that provides shock-absorption, cushioning, and lubrication in your joints.
Sports dieticians recommend that golfers sip water regularly during the round, and drink another 1-2 full cups (8-16 ounces) within 30 minutes of finishing a round. Another trick, useful for those playing in very hot weather or other situations where dehydration is a serious concern, is to weigh yourself before and after each round, and drink about 2.5 cups (20 ounces) of fluid for every pound of water weight you lose.
The next step is to relieve the pain itself. This is not just to help you feel better, but, more importantly, to interrupt the pain cycle-- which occurs when already sore, tight muscles instinctively “guard” against the pain they’re feeling by tensing up even further, thus creating a cycle of escalating muscle tension, rigidity and pain.
At-home pain relief methods include taking painkillers such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), icing (though this should not be done for more than 10-15 minutes as the cold can end up worsening muscle tension over time), massage, and of course resting the affected areas instead of continuing to tax them.
Stretching and massage both help to release tightness in your muscles, and in the soft tissues around your joints, which become more inelastic with age. However, stretching is not sufficient for the fascia, which requires the sustained pressure of myofascial massage (also known as trigger-point therapy) to physically release areas of adhesion and restriction.
Manual massage tools like massage balls and electronic devices like massage guns
can both be used for muscles, joints, and myofascial release. With manual tools, you either apply pressure using your own strength, or get into positions that allow your own bodyweight to apply pressure on the desired location. With massage guns, you simply switch them on and apply them to the desired area, adjusting the strength and intensity of the massage by changing the speed settings if required.
Massage guns are more expensive than manual massage tools-- in part because they cost more to manufacture, and in part because they’re a fairly new technology, with the market dominated by big brands selling at high markups. However, direct-to-consumer disruptors like HYDRAGUN are now offering high-quality massage guns at up to $300 less, which may make it easier for more people to give them a try.
Good circulation facilitates the body's natural healing process in general, speeding up the clearance of the metabolic waste generated during exercise and the cell damage debris from microinjuries. But it’s especially important for joint pain, as encouraging circulation around the joints improves the flow of both blood and the synovial fluid that lubricates your joints and allows you to move freely and without pain.
At-home activities that promote circulation include heat therapy (heat wraps, hot water bottles, hot baths or showers) and the use of compression garments or sleeves, which prevent blood from pooling in the compressed areas. Physiotherapists also recommend stretching, light movement, and medium to deep massage-- a 2018 Journal of General Internal Medicine study of 200 knee pain sufferers found that massage significantly decreased their WOMAC score (which measures joint pain and stiffness) from 49 (moderate) to 27 (low).
The final step is the most neglected and yet the most critical for the successful long-term management of golf pain: working to increase your overall flexibility, so your body can better handle the extreme ranges of motion and high rotational velocities required by the swing.
Improved flexibility and ROM will also improve your swing efficacy at every stage from setup to finish. Increased physical ability to get into the right position at address will improve your stability and thus your consistency and shot accuracy, while greater flexibility in the hips, spine and torso will give you a fuller backswing and allow you to rotate your trunk faster on the downswing, increasing swing speed and swing distance.
A physiotherapist can help you construct a flexibility programme tailored to your specific needs, but if you’re working at home, you can simply stretch out or massage areas that feel sore or stiff after a round-- the soreness being a pretty good indicator of areas you might need to work on. These might include one or more the following muscle groups activated in the golf swing:
Getting through all 5 steps in just 15 minutes might seem like a stretch, especially when you’re already tired and aching from a four-hour game.
But you can keep things quick and simple by choosing treatments like stretching or massage, which can cover multiple steps at the same time. This will be much faster than routines that involve several different activities, such as 5-10 minutes of icing to relieve the pain, followed by a 20-minute hot bath or shower to help your muscles relax and improve circulation, followed by a ten-minute stretching routine to address range of motion.
Taking advantage of advances in massage technology will also help you optimise your treatment time and experience, as massage guns work much faster than manual massage tools or even treatment by a professional massage therapist. In fact, multiple studies including a 2020 Journal of Sports Science and Medicine article and a 2021 review of 39 different massage gun trials have repeatedly demonstrated that massage guns produce significant results after just 5 minutes of use. Massage guns also offer more precise targeting than manual massage tools, and are easier to use on hard-to-reach areas like the elbow, knee, pelvis, shoulders, and lower spine.
However, the most important factor in your choice of treatments is that you choose the methods that work for and feel best to you, and that fit in with your schedule and lifestyle. This will make it easier for you build a solid post-golf recovery habit, so you can go back to enjoying the game without pain.
If you’re interested in trying a massage gun, HYDRAGUN is giving golfers a limited-time, risk-free offer with the promo code GOLF100. It includes:
$100 off the Hydragun massage gun with code GOLF100 at checkout
Free, fast shipping
Free 30-day returns, no questions asked
Free 1.5 year warranty, automatically applied to all purchases
Free carrying case, charger, and 6 attachment heads for different muscle groups