We’ve all heard it: the stories of the legendary Tiger Woods injuring his left knee in 2007. He initially decided not to get surgery and went on to win some more. What a beast, eh?
Still, this begs the question: is golf bad for your knees?
Short answer: Yes, it can be. In fact, a study from Sports Medicine says that as much as 18% of professional and amateur golfers experience knee injuries. 1
However, it’s never quite as cut and dry as statistics make it seem. There are a bunch of factors involved here, including age, wear and tear, the way you swing your clubs, and others more.
The good news is that several of these factors can be optimized to minimize risk.
Related: The Top Golfing Knee Supports
This is where I come in – to hopefully equip you with the right information that may help you avoid knee pain and protect the integrity of your joints. Let me start you off with why your knee might be hurting in the first place.
Three Causes of Knee Pain While Golfing
First of all, you have to understand that the knee is a complex structure made up of many parts.
Basically, though, the knee joint is where your thigh bone (i.e. femur) meets your shin (i.e. tibia). In between these bones are menisci that act as shock-absorbers and all these structures are held together by tendons and ligaments.
Damage to any of these can – and will – cause pain.
So, how do these tissues get damaged anyway?
1. You’re playing way too much
Research from the American Journal of Sports Medicine says that 82.6% of golf-related injuries are reportedly due to overuse.
Now, this study doesn’t actually say those knee injuries are common but separate research from the European Journal of Sport Science does mention that if athletes get knee injuries, they’re mostly because of overuse.
2. Acute injuries to the meniscus, ligaments, and/or tendons
If a good majority of golf injuries are because of overuse, the rest of the cases (17.4%) are because of acute trauma to soft tissue. Of particular risk in this sport are your menisci.
According to The Yorkshire Knee Clinic, meniscus tears aren’t the most common injuries in golf but if you were to damage your knee, it’s believed to be the most prevalent.
Why is that, you ask?
Blame all the twisting motions inherent to the sport.
You see, meniscal tears happen when there’s a sudden twist to the knee when your foot is planted on the floor, as is what happens to the lead leg during a ballistic golf swing.
If you need an example, look no further than Tiger Woods’ first couple of years playing pro. That man’s swing was brutal and probably why he’s had multiple knee surgeries prior to changing his form in 2008. (PGA Tour Youtube video.)
3. Aggravating unhealed injuries
The logic behind this is simple: If your joints’ soft tissues are compromised, they won’t function as optimally as they should. They become unstable and unable to efficiently disperse whatever stress they receive, which may:
- A) Worsen the pre-existing injury, or
- B) Create even more injuries
I’m not just referring to knee injuries either (though, that’s the point of emphasis). Playing with issues in other areas of your body might actually put more pressure on your knees and vice versa.
For example, a stiff lower back would force your hips, knees, and shoulders to compensate for your back’s lack of range. This, in turn, puts them all at a higher risk for injury.
This leads us to the next part of our conversation.
Can You Play Golf With A Knee Injury?
As it is with any other sport, it all depends on the type and severity of the injury.
- If it’s a torn meniscus, the Hospital for Special Surgery says that you should fully recover from the injury before returning to the course, regardless if you’ve had surgery or not.
- If you have a history of an ACL injury, an uncommon injury in golf, you can play but do so with caution, especially if the injury was to your lead leg. And, of course, the injury also has to be fully healed prior to playing.
- If it’s arthritis or knee replacement, the best advice I can give is to listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t force it. If all is well, though, go for it. But, again, play with caution.
Tips for Protecting Your Knee on the Golf Course
Improve your body mechanics
The way I see it, this is perhaps the most important bit about preventing sports-related injuries. Ask any trainer and they’ll tell you that the most expensive equipment and the biggest muscles won’t hold a candle to proper body mechanics.
That being said, the first thing you might want to check on is your foot placement.
Because of the nature of meniscal tears, changing how you plant your foot may be key to protecting your lead leg. Here are few things you can try:
- Instead of pointing your toes straight or inward, turn your feet slightly out. This way, your knees become pre-rotated outward which, in turn, limits overall knee rotation throughout the swing.
- Point your lead foot up during your swing. This focuses your pivot point to just your heel instead of the entire foot, allowing your entire lower limb to rotate simultaneously with your body.
- Lift your lead leg off the ground ever so slightly right before your club hits the ball à la Patrick Reed. When your foot isn’t planted at the strongest part of the swing, the risk to your meniscus becomes virtually minimal. Admittedly, though, this may take quite a bit of practice.
Next, move your focus upward to your knees and hips.
- For your knees, make sure they don’t go beyond your toes when you bend them and try not to let them point inward during your stance. This helps reduce knee pressure and, ultimately, may help prevent knee pain.
- For your hips, try not to bend forward too much. Golf is a closed-chain activity which means bending your hips generally also means bending your knees to keep you from falling forward. This not only adds unnecessary stress to your knees but also makes you more prone to errors.
I strongly believe that this is another key tip that can help golfers avoid knee pain. You might get away with going 0-100 when you were younger but as you age, your body tolerates less and less, so it’s important to get warmed up before you swing straight for the fences.
- Start with half and three-quarters swings just so you can get a proper feel for your clubs and swings then move on to full swings when you feel comfortable.
- If your body really feels stiff that day, perhaps do shorter shots like chipping, pitching, and putting first. If you feel more comfortable after hitting those shots, move on. But, if you don’t, perhaps it’s best you take the day off instead.
Change your gear
There are 2 things I want you to focus on here: Your shoes and your clubs.
- When it comes to golf shoes, choose ones with softer and shorter cleats. This gives your lead leg more freedom to pivot during your swing which, in turn, helps reduce rotation on your knee.
- When it comes to clubs, I highly recommend getting fit by a professional. From your woods, to irons, to the length and flexibility of your shafts, and even to the type of material being used… all these can play a part in how you play, and how you play can affect the long-term health of your joints.
Based purely on observation though, I’ve noticed that golfers with knee pain tend to favor lighter and more flexible golf clubs. Shaft vibration inserts also seem to help with joint pain.
Improve your conditioning
Like it or not, fully minimizing risks for a knee injury starts before you even step on the course.
According to research from Sports Health, a few of the reasons golfers get injured are poor flexibility and strength.
Furthermore, a study from the Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research found out that the pressure you put on your lead knee during a golf swing is about 440% of your body weight.
Now, I’m not asking you to train like Arnold Schwarzenegger but get in the gym, put your reps in, and train with the following goals in mind:
- Improve your overall flexibility
- Increase the strength of your trunk (core), upper, and lower body
- Lose weight if you’re overweight
Golf Knee Pain Treatment
RICE your knees
In sports medicine, RICE means Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation – and all these are crucial to the treatment plan of any sports-related injury.
RICE-ing is going to help reduce inflammation and, in turn, help minimize knee pain following activity.
Just a few pointers on applying ice though:
- Don’t ice your knees for more than 20 minutes at a time. Doing so essentially reverses the effects of cryotherapy, creating even more knee pain.
- After 2-3 days, or when the swelling has gone down, apply heat instead of ice. This promotes blood flow which then accelerates recovery.
- Never apply ice directly to your skin. At the very least, have a thin sheet of fabric between your knees and ice to prevent ice burns.
Use painkillers conservatively
You see, pain isn’t always a bad thing. It tells you that something’s wrong and that you should be careful with whatever feels painful or tender. So, when you numb away the pain, you might also lose your sense of caution.
That being said, I highly recommend not taking any painkillers if you don’t absolutely have to. But, if your knee pain is stopping you from accomplishing your daily activities then perhaps consider the idea.
You can get over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like Aleve and Advil from your nearest pharmacy but if those don’t work for you, the best advice I can give is to visit your doctor.
Go see a physical therapist
Like I said, pain is meant to tell you that something’s not right but it doesn’t always tell you why. However, I’m willing to bet that a good physical therapist can.
Not only will understanding the reason for your knee pain help you fix it, but it’ll also help reduce the chances of it happening again.
Plus, physical therapy can help you safely get back on the golf course through guided exercise, tools, and modalities.
Can I play golf with bad knees?
Yes, though you might need to alter a few things, including:
- Your golf shoes. Try wearing ones with shorter and softer cleats.
- Your clubs. Getting fitted is the best advice I can give but lighter and more flexible clubs seem to help relieve stress on the knee joint.
- Your swing mechanics. Allow your lead leg to pivot while you swing instead of planting it firmly on the ground to reduce the twisting forces on your knee. Try to stay as upright as you can as well.
- Focus on technique over power. Ballistic swings coupled with poor technique is one of the main reasons golfers put excessive stress on their knee joint.
Which exercises are bad for your knees?
You need to avoid full-range open-chain exercises and wide-range closed-chain exercises when you have a knee injury.
Open-chain exercises are when your feet aren’t fixed to a surface while closed-chain exercises are when they are. Here are a few examples:
- Open-chain leg exercises: Leg extension machine. If you do decide to do this, do partial extensions instead of doing the full range.
- Closed-chain leg exercises: Squats and lunges. Deep squats and lunges – especially with poor form – puts excessive stress on your knee joint instead of focusing on your muscles.
Is golf bad for arthritis?
Yes and no.
Playing golf can be bad for your joints mostly if you play unprepared and with poor form. However, it can also be beneficial when it’s done right and with an open mind.
If you’re willing to rely more on technique instead of raw power, golf can be one of the best ways to remain active in spite of deteriorating cartilage. After all, it promotes better flexibility, strength, and balance.
What is the most common injury in golf?
The most commonly reported injuries in golf are due to overuse and poor mechanics. Per a study, these often involve the low back, non-dominant shoulder, and elbow. Wrist injuries seem to be common in professional golfers as well.
The unfortunate truth is that golfing can cause knee problems.
However, with the right conditioning, better mechanics, properly fitted gear, and the willingness to focus on your technique, you can significantly minimize your risk of injury.
I guess all I have left to say now is good luck, work on your game, and I’ll see you out on the course. Ciao!