If you play golf long enough, you’ll have wrist pain – it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.
In this article I’ll cover some basics of wrist pain in golfers and point you to some great resources on golf injuries in the hand and arm.
How do wrist injuries happen in golf?
Younger golfers tend to have acute or sudden injuries where they tear, sprain, or strain things. These injuries happen most often when hitting a fat shot or when trying to hit a shot out of an awkward lie.
Older golfers usually aggravate existing conditions by playing, like arthritis or tendonitis.
Golfers of most any age can get repetitive motion injuries like tendonitis or even make other common wrist problems like carpal tunnel worse by playing the game.
Here are some things that put you at increased risk for a wrist injury:
- poor physical conditioning
- overuse (playing or practicing too much)
- no warm-up
- poor swing mechanics or technique
What types of wrist injuries occur in golfers?
By far, the most common wrist injury is tendonitis.
There are two main groups of tendons in your wrist. One group on the back side of the wrist extends or straightens the wrist and fingers. The other set, on the palm side, flexes (or bends) the wrist and fingers.
Injury and pain on the back side (extensor side) are more common. These tendons run through tight tunnels called tendon sheaths, and can get trapped and irritated with repetitive strain over time.
Sometimes tendonitis takes a few months or weeks to develop, but can happen quickly if you really overdo it on a weekend or playing in a high-performance environment without proper preparation.
One common example of extensor tendonitis is thumb tendonitis, or DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis. It’s sometimes called Mommy’s Thumb, but it causes plenty of misery for men, too. Here’s my article on mommy thumb with a video showing you where it is on the thumb and wrist.
Tears, fractures, and sprains
Other less common wrist injuries include fractures of the small carpal bones and ligament tears. Fracture (or break – same thing) of the hamate is a very classic golf wrist fracture, but it’s pretty rare.
Ligaments on the pinky side of the wrist can be torn or sprained while playing golf. This set of ligaments is called the triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC); a long technical term for the strong ligaments that link your radius bone to your ulna bone down by your wrist.
Pain from a TFCC tear or sprain is only on the pinky side of the wrist and forearm and can shoot into the pinky side of the hand or up along the forearm towards the elbow.
How do you know when the problem is bad enough to see a doctor?
Golfers are notorious for “playing through” pain and tolerating a lot of misery to stay out on the course.
If your pain is lasting longer than one or two weeks, find a wrist specialist who can diagnose the problem accurately and help you find a solution. It’s not worth causing more damage or taking more risk.
Sometimes telling the difference between a broken wrist and a sprained wrist can be difficult.
Fractures cause a lot of swelling, bruising, and limited motion in the fingers, and happen after a duffed shot or single, sudden, painful event on the course.
Sprains happen in a similar way, but don’t usually cause severe symptoms.
What’s the best way to treat my wrist pain?
The first treatment for golfer’s wrist pain is the one you don’t want to hear – take a break from playing!
Don’t panic – you don’t have to stop completely in most cases – just tone down your intensity or frequency of playing and practicing for two weeks. In most cases this is enough time to allow the irritated and painful area to calm down. Work on putting or pitching; avoid full swing during the healing phase of your injury.
A combination of rest, ice, compression and elevation and maybe an anti-inflammatory medicine is usually enough to calm down most golf-related wrist pain. A splint can also let the wrist rest after an injury or aggravation of pain.
If your pain flares up when you return to play, find a hand and wrist specialist as soon as possible.
Wrist specialists are usually orthopedic surgeons who work on hands, wrists, and elbows.
If you have a condition aggravated by golf, like arthritis, conservative treatments are available to manage those more chronic conditions and let you return to playing.
Some preventive measures you can take to avoid wrist injury when you’re playing
- slow down your back swing
- keep your wrists and hands parallel
- switch from steel shaft to graphite shaft
- use larger grips
- strengthen your core
- strengthen your forearms
- don’t try to strong-arm a ball out of an awkward spot
- warm up
How to help your doctor figure out your wrist pain
Contrary to popular belief, we’re not all-seeing, all powerful beings! Here are some ways you can be prepared if you have to see a wrist specialist or your regular doctor for your wrist pain.
- where is the pain – be specific!
- Did this happen as a one-time sharp pain or has it been progressively getting worse?
- when do you have pain? what phase of the swing?
- do you have pain when you’re not playing?
- are there certain motions that aggravate the pain?
- does anything make it better?
Resources for learning more about golf injury and prevention
Bionic golf gloves – the longest lasting, best fitting gloves out there – I recommend them to golfers in my office.
Core strengthening for golfers – great articles and how-to videos.