Golf seems like a gentle sport. You don't get punched or tackled—unless a member of your foursome is having a really bad day. Your body isn't jarred or jostled and your legs aren't pounding pavement. Though the inherent dangers of golf aren't obvious, golfers may be injured—and sidelined by the pain.

Luckily, with a little prevention and good form, most golf injuries are avoidable. "The biggest issue with golf is the image that it's sedentary," says Stephen Rice, MD, co-director of Jersey Shore Sports Medicine. "People don't realize that you need good flexibility, strength, and proper technique or you could get hurt."

How Golf Hurts

The list of possible golf injuries is surprisingly extensive. Many result from some aspect of the swing—which involves an "explosive forward motion and violent muscle contractions," Dr. Rice explains. Because you're holding a club with a relatively heavy head that acts as a long lever arm, "these forces are magnified," Rice adds. Other injuries result from improper form and from the repetitive nature of the sport.

The Back

"A lot of pros have problems with their backs," says Dr. Rice. The twisting motion of the swing, the movement of the spine, and repeated bending to take putts all contribute to back pain.

Golfers are also likely to have muscular imbalances since most of the stress is on one side of your body, according to Gregory Florez, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Many back problems can be prevented with strong trunk muscles (abdominal muscles and back muscles), which control the twisting mechanism, and good flexibility, which helps prevent overstretching of back muscles, says Dr. Rice.

The Hips

As you rotate your body, Florez says, you risk pulled muscles in the hip area. Make sure to stretch your hip muscles well after warming up.

The Shoulder

You engage your shoulder in both the take-away and follow-through of your swing, and it's an area at risk for ]]>strains]]> and ]]>sprains]]> . Florez recommends stretching this area well before playing, and strengthening the shoulder off the course. Try lateral shoulder raises with dumbbells or rotator cuff exercises (such as internal and external rotations with a dumbbell).

The Elbows

The shock at impact—between the club and the ball or the ground—is largely absorbed by the elbow muscles and tendons, according to Dr. Rice. ]]>Tendinopathy (tendonitis)]]> at the elbow is a risk that increases if your technique is poor.

The Wrists

Like ]]>tennis]]> players, golfers sometimes suffer from tendonitis of the wrist as a result of repeated dorsiflexion, Dr. Rice says. And if you miss the ball and hit the ground, the muscles and tendons of your wrist absorb much of that impact, as well.

The Hands

There are several bones in your hand—the hamate bone and the navicular (or scaphoid) bone, for example—that are susceptible to chipping or breakage when playing golf. Usually the breaks result from "hitting the ground instead of the ball," says Dr. Rice.

Good technique and solid ball contact will prevent most of these injuries. Some players experience "arthritic changes in knuckle bones," Rice says. Though the changes are not caused by golfing, they affect the way these players hold the club.

You can help yourself by loosening your grip. "Hold the club like it's an open tube of toothpaste," says Greg Griffiths, an instructor at the South Florida Golf Academy. "Don't squeeze any of the toothpaste out." This is good for your golf swing as well as your hands.

The Hamstrings

You wouldn't think the fairly simple putting motion could cause an injury, but it can. "You do need good flexibility in your ]]>hamstrings]]> or you could pull them when you're putting and bending forward," warns Dr. Rice.

Fitness and Prevention

According to Florez, the majority of professional golfers today are on structured fitness programs. "Fitness is an integral part of a healthy and competitive golf game," he explains.

Beyond being fit, Rice suggests working with a golf pro to learn proper technique. Good form, he says, is not only better for your score but it also puts less stress on your body. And "if you're doing something wrong, you'll probably be taking more shots, which increases your risk of injury."

Before you play, get in the habit of warming up your muscles and stretching, and make that part of your routine off the course, too. At the very least, "take a brisk five minute walk before you play. Walk the first fairway if you get there early," Florez says. Then, he says, make sure to ]]>stretch]]>, focusing on the lower back, hips, legs, and shoulders.

Beyond Your Own Game

Even if you're a scratch golfer, chances are the folks on the fairway next to you aren't. Speaking for all not-so-great golfers out there, sometimes we hit it the wrong way. We don't mean to—we'd love to have every shot go straight down the fairway. So be aware of what's happening around you on the course. A golf ball strike to the head or in the eye can cause serious damage, Rice reminds players, so pay attention when someone yells, "Fore!" And make sure to let anyone near you on the course know if one of your stray shots is headed their way.

Beware of the Weather

Another element beyond your control that can cause problems on the golf course is the weather. On a sunny day, you'll be pounded with UVA and UVB rays for about four hours. So, be sure to wear ]]>sunscreen]]> , bring a hat, and have sunglasses handy.

Rice also reminds players that when the temperature creeps up, you are at risk for ]]>dehydration]]> and ]]>heat stroke]]>. The precautions are pretty simple:

  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Wear a hat.
  • Head for the shade or the clubhouse if you start to feel overheated, flushed, or nauseous.

Rice says lightning is another golf hazard—you're vulnerable out there. An old joke says when there's lightning on the golf course, hold your one iron straight up in the air, because not even God can hit a one iron.

Don't count on it. When there's lightning in the sky, head for the clubhouse.