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Healthy Joints Help Lower Scores

May 13, 2011

By Matt Hombach

Fred Funk
(Mitch Stringer/PressBox)
Although golf sometimes fights the "Is it really a sport?" question, even casual players can attest that the game is physically demanding and dishes out its share of injuries.

During and after playing 18 holes, golfers of any age can feel all types of aches and pains. Many fail to realize they don't have to play through the pain, and medical treatment can make their joints healthy and actually improve their game.

"The most common pain golfers experience is in the elbow and shoulder due to the significant rotation required of these joints during the golf swing," said Ronald Delanois, an orthopedic surgeon who treats scores of golfers each year at the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.

"In many cases, this pain is caused by early arthritic changes in the joint and can be a sign of bigger problems that need to be treated proactively."

Look no further than former University of Maryland coach and current Champions Tour standout Fred Funk as a prime example of a golfer who sought treatment for joint problems and is now playing as well or better than ever.

For years, Funk suffered from pain in his right knee as he maintained a busy schedule as one of the most recognizable and popular players on the PGA Tour. There was little cartilage left in his knee and the bone-on-bone contact in the joint was causing significant discomfort. He had to have the knee drained an amazing 18 times during one season.

"By the end of the (2009) season, I was pretty much shot because I was limping around,” said Funk. "I had weakness in my knee and my game deteriorated. I couldn't stay competitive anymore. I decided to have my knee replaced."

The artificial knee Funk and his doctor selected was the Triathlon Knee System from Stryker. Funk now serves as a spokesman for the company and hopes to educate other golfers on joint pain and remedies that are available. 

In addition to causing pain, joint problems can restrict range of motion in golfers, leading to a loss of distance and accuracy.

Although joint pain is common in golfers as they get older, the good news is there is a wide array of non-surgical treatment options available that can help prolong or even eliminate the need for total replacement.

"Many patients with joint problems are heavier than they should be," Delanois said. "A balanced diet and exercise program aimed at maintaining a healthy body weight will reduce wear and tear on your joints."

Delanois urged golfers to take time to execute stretching exercises before PLAYING to loosen up muscles and joints.

Having good equipment is an important part of the equation, too. Clubs that are fitted to body size and swing type and a quality pair of spikes will help golfers swing more efficiently and naturally, avoiding stress on the joints.

A fundamentally sound swing also helps. Golfers with unorthodox swings and bad mechanics are more prone to injuries, according to Delanois.

Although Funk can't blame poor swing mechanics or being overweight for his joint issues, he seems confident he made the right call in seeking treatment and having his knee replaced.

Just six weeks after surgery, Funk's doctor cleared him to get back on the course and start light practice. When he found himself in a sand trap for the first time after surgery, he noticed a big difference right away.

"When my knee was really bad for two years, I had to just put my feet on top of the sand and try to hit a shot without digging in and I had no stability," Funk said. "My feet would move all over the place. I just had no way to really go after the shot.

"When I saw (the ball in) the bunker, I just walked in it and I started digging in and it didn't hurt. I went 'Yes! This is cool.' I could get in and I could actually have my bunker game back."

Many of Delanois' patients are anxious to get back on the course after surgery and prescribed rehabilitation. Most are pleasantly surprised at the state of their game.

"I can say that a lot of my patients tell me their scores actually improve by a few strokes after surgery," Delanois said. "Without pain in their joints, they have increased mobility and get back to being good in a short amount of time.

"Fred Funk should serve as an inspiration to golfers, showing that their body and their game don't need to suffer due to joint problems. They need to do all they can to keep their joints healthy and talk to their doctors about and seek treatment for any recurring joint pain."

Issue 161: May 2011