For the longest time, the middle back also known as the thoracic spine was one of the more overlooked regions of the body by coaches and trainers when involving the golf swing. But recently the evidence from the people at the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) has revealed it to be crucial for proper motion and without it the golf swing will suffer. Let’s take a closer look as to why this part of the body is so important.
How many areas are connected to the thoracic spine?
The thoracic spine has four components that are attached to it that are used for both stability and mobility. The cervical spine (neck), lumbar spine (lower back) and two scapula-thoracic joints (shoulder blades) are all connected to the thoracic spine. Even more reason that the middle back is important is because the ribs are a part of it. In order to make proper rotation around the body during the golf swing, the ribs must be motioning well otherwise the take back or follow through will be reduced causing recruitment of other corresponding areas of the body to make up for the lack of motion. This is bad news for all golfers because the eventual outcome is injury. Overuse of a single body part during any sport can cause injury but compensation of other body parts only increases the risk when lack of mobility is the primary issue.
One of the most common injuries in the game of golf is medial epicondylitis, which to everyone is known as golfer’s elbow.
While swing faults such as casting and scooping of the wrists during the downswing can lead to this injury the more overlooked areas that are causing this overuse issue are the shoulders. When there is lack of proper stability from the shoulders due to overly tight muscles this leads to restriction of the elbow joint. The corresponding muscles of the elbow are at risk for the common overuse injury. How does this have anything to do with the thoracic spine? Remember that the shoulder blades are attached to the middle back, which connect the rotator cuff muscles to the upper arm. So, if there is not sufficient motion of the thoracic spine this will limit the shoulder stability that leads to poor elbow mechanics and eventually the injury takes place.
Stiffness of the thoracic spine does not only correlate with overuse injuries but it also has a connection with breathing and tempo.
Being routine and consistent is essential for a good golf game. Breathing is an essential cue for most golfers because it allows them to slow his or her heart rate and keep a comfortable rhythm. If this aspect of the game is removed due to hunched shallow breathing from a stiff thoracic spine then a routine will feel rushed causing loss of tempo and a poor swing of the golf club. Proper rib motion is essential for proper breathing technique. As we know, the ribs are attached to the thoracic spine. Lack of motion of the ribs will hinder breathing and eventually cause muscle tightening between the ribs. This leads to possible complications with the chest wall including pain.
What is the issue that leads to most thoracic spine problems?
The main cause of the reduced motion of the thoracic spine in the normal weekend golfer is due to loss of posture. Most people will spend more than 40-50 hours per week at their computers and always wonder why they cannot hit the ball as long as the pros on tour. The majority of players on tour who rank among the best are usually no more than 160 pounds in body weight yet they can consistently hit long drives over 300 yards. Does this mean they are just very physically stronger than everyone else? No. But the mobility and stability of all their joints are suited for the game of golf because they are trained to do so. Immobility is the biggest reason that most non-professional golfers become injured while playing the game. When posture is lost not only does it affect the thoracic spine from hours of hunching and slouching but other areas like the lower back, abdominal muscles and hip flexors are also compromised. Therefore, proper movement of the middle back is key when getting motion from the lower and upper body.
Most golfers who are smaller in stature are able to hit longer drives not only because they have great flexibility but they can transfer power from their lower bodies to the upper body and shoulders through the entire golf swing. Without proper functioning and mobility of the joints in the thoracic spine, this cannot be done. An easy screening test that is done by the TPI professionals and golfing coaches is the seated trunk rotation test. This is performed with the student seated at the end of a chair with the arms crossed over the tops of the shoulders. A golf club or long stick is held into position on the shoulders as a point of reference. By doing this, rotation can only be done with the thoracic spine as your hips and lower back are not able to move to allow for the appearance for more rotation. The normal degrees of rotation for the thoracic spine is 40-45 to each side. It is important to note the motion being done and it is not merely a movement of the shoulder blades that looks like rotation from the thoracic spine. A failed test is any motion that is less than 40 degrees.
If a person fails this test, how can it be corrected?
The answer is find the restriction, remove it and stabilize it. Consulting a chiropractor would be a great first step to check spinal alignment and reveal restrictions of the thoracic spine which would cause loss of proper motion and eventual muscle strain of the lower back or shoulders. If a restriction if found then consistent chiropractic care is needed as the joints will take time to heal and restore normal function. The next step is doing the proper exercises to maintain your posture and improve thoracic spine mobility. Ligaments and tendons that help hold the spine in position will take time to heal so be patient with the process and stick to the plan. Posture exercises include a combination of flexibility and strengthening that are ideal to help provide support and without seeing this step then all is lost with improving and maintaining thoracic spine alignment.
The game of golf is meant to be enjoyed. That’s pretty tough to do when there is always a body part that is constantly hurting or tight due to compensation of another. So, be proactive and always look for the underlying issue that caused the problem. Find someone to help store function and allow the body to move the way it was designed so that the time spent on the course can full of fun and not full of hurt.
Dr. Brandon Siegmund was born and raised outside of Fort Worth. After he obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006, Dr. Siegmund performed clinical research at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Click Here To Read Full Bio