Back in the Swing of Things
Grocery shopping hurt.
Walking 100 feet from the parking lot to the store caused crippling back pain.
“I was hurting for six months and miserable for four months, and I knew I was never going to golf again,” said former PGA Tour professional Gary Jacobson, age 66. “Golf was my love and my passion, but swinging a club? That was unthinkable.”
Randall W. Porter, MD, at Barrow Neurological Institute performed Gary’s lumbar surgery in 2007 – the same procedure that Tiger Woods underwent – and within four months, Gary was back on the links.
Back disorders like Gary’s are the most common injuries among professional and amateur golfers, comprising 55 percent and 35 percent of injuries among those groups, respectively, according to a recent study by Dr. Porter and Barrow physicians Corey T. Walker, MD, and Juan S. Uribe, MD.
Their article, published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine, warns that while the modern golf swing may give golfers more distance and power, it also increases their risk of serious back injuries. The article – “Golf: a contact sport. Repetitive traumatic discopathy may be the driver of early lumbar degeneration in modern-era golfers” – says that modern golfers are applying more force when they swing the club. During the downswing, greater force is directed toward the spinal disc and facet joints, causing repeated minor traumatic injuries to the spine. Over time, this may result in a pathogenic process that the authors have termed “repetitive traumatic discopathy” (RTD).
The paper discusses modern-day golf swing biomechanics and how they relate to the development of RTD, earlier ages of players exhibiting RTD, and the possibility that golfers’ athletic strength training may contribute to RTD. They also address treatment of patients with this repetitive spinal injury.
Tiger Woods’ back issues are one well-publicized example cited by the authors, and his recent victory at the 2019 Masters has been praised as one of the greatest comeback stories in all of sports. RTD does not distinguish between champions and amateurs, however.
“Repetitive traumatic discopathy results from years of degenerative ‘hits’ or strains on the spine resulting in early onset breakdown, instability, and pain,” Dr. Walker said. “We hope medical practitioners, and surgeons in particular, will be able to diagnose and treat golfers with RTD in a specialized fashion going forward.”
This discovery can also help players understand the damage that their swing may be doing so they can take countermeasures to prevent long-term injury and continue to enjoy the game they love.
Gary was an All-America golfer at Arizona State University in 1974 and 1975, and played on the PGA Tour in 1978 and 1979. In his best finish as a professional, Jacobson tied for fifth at the 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa. He also appeared in the 1977 British Open and 1978 Masters.
Prior to his 2007 operation, Gary hit 400 golf balls a day, lifted weights and regularly bicycled to get into condition for Senior Tour qualifying school.
“I struggled with back issues most of my life, but it never interfered with an important golf round,” he said. “I blame that summer for taking my back to another level.”
Jacobson required a second lumbar operation in 2011, also performed by Dr. Porter. Since then, he has been pain-free and has played to a handicap of 3 or better. The Glendale, Ariz., resident also hikes, and he credits Dr. Porter with giving him a new lease on life.
“My results were amazing,” Gary said. “It’s like being 25 years old again. I’m back to lifting heavy things and being active. I wish the rest of me felt like 25 again.”
By investigating common back injuries among golfers and identifying the biomechanical causes, Barrow physicians have accepted the challenge of getting professionals like Gary, and weekend warriors, back in the game.