Avoiding a pain in the neck in golf

April 8th, 2011 by Phil Brown

Following the first day of The Masters at wonderfully sunny Augusta, one news story about Padraig Harrington’s struggles on the course yesterday caught my eye. Harrington – according to news stories – is suffering from a recurrence of chronic neck pain. He explains in a story on the Sky TV website that he was warming up and swinging and he felt something go click and then found it impossible to turn to the right.

I wish Padraig all the best and really hope that his sports therapists can help sort his neck to get him through the rest of The Masters.

Neck pain can plague anyone and for golfers, there are a number of things to watch out for that will help prevent the development of chronic neck pain or that nasty clicking feeling that tells you you aren’t going to be playing your best for a while.

Alignment and the Forward Head Syndrome

The quality of rotational movement in the cervical (upper shoulders, neck, head) spine is affected strongly by the  alignment between the articulating vertebrae of the spine. A very common postural problem we shall call Forward Head Syndrome affects range of rotation of the head and neck. Many golfers (and people in general) hold their heads too far forward in relation to their shoulders. The result is the weight of the head puts stress on the upper erector muscles of the spine. These muscles stretch long and lock up to cope with the weight of the forward head. Think of how much more difficult it is to do a bicep curl with your arm stuck straight out from your body, rather than with your elbow tucked close to your trunk and you get an idea of what these erector muscles must feel like.

Head rotation from left to right from a forward head position is significantly compromised compared to rotation from a position where the head is nicely balanced on top of the shoulders. In golf, if this position is your default position as you go to play your sport, you are already at risk of injury due to those erector muscles at the back of your neck  being in a state of hypertonicity (really really tight).  As any athlete will tell you, a muscle is much more likely to strain when it is stressed in a LENGTHENED position.

The golf swing is ALL rotation. Yes, we keep our heads still as we focus on the ball, but the rotation in the cervical spine is still occurring – its just that here the head stays still and the body moves in relation to it. If our neck is tight and restricted due to a Forward Head posture, the articulating surfaces of the upper vertebrae will find it harder to move freely over one another.  As we move into the back swing, this limitation becomes clear as the head is dragged up and back by the rotation of the back and shoulders. Then, as we move down and through to follow-through, our head comes up too quickly as the stiff neck is pulled round and forward the other way by the arms and shoulders.  Moving repeatedly in a restricted pattern can have the effect of underlining that set pattern and rigidity even more.  So not only do we not play the best shot we could, we also perpetuate and even worsen a pre-existing problem.

Pain will present when one of more of these overtight muscles that create rotation, flexion (bending forward), or extension (bending back/looking up) become strained due to a  load or activity that pushes them beyond their already limited stretch. The smaller rotational muscles in the spine are commonly strained, but the larger muscles that control shoulder elevation (shrugging) and neck rotation, flexion and extension can also become chronically tight and painful. This pain can come on suddenly and feel like a “crick” in the neck. Often, rotation to one side or the other will be severely hampered. Flexion or extension can also be affected.

Often, this problem can be treated with simple soft tissue therapy or physical therapy. Sometimes, a “crick” in the neck can be alleviated in minutes with the right treatment. At other times, things take longer. Tight muscles exert pulling forces on the vertebrae they attach to. Sometimes, these vertebrae can be pulled out of alignment. The result is the malalignment of one or more of the small facet joints which are made up of the articulating surfaces of the vertebrae. These joints can get stuck in an open or closed position and sometimes need the help of a trained practitioner such as an osteopath or chiropractor to manipulate them back into line. Once this is done successfully, freedom of movement is restored, but then steps must be taken to retrain movement and adjust posture to prevent a recurrence of neck pain, which can become a chronic problem.

The Permanent Shrug or “Coat hanger”  Syndrome

Another postural pattern that golfers should watch for is the Permanent Shrug. I often meet clients whose shoulders are so near their ears they look like they forgot to take the coat hanger out before they put their jacket on!  Weekend golfers who spend alot of time at work in front of a monitor can suffer from this posture, as can people who are tense and stressed. Having high and tight shoulders will ruin a golf swing and put alot of stress on the neck and upper back. The same dangers described above of going at your sport with muscles that are already tight and stressed apply here. The same results will occur.

Preventing a pain in the neck

There are a number of very effective strategies for preventing the onset of neck pain, or preventing reoccurence,  but they are summed up in the following advice:


At Muscle and Movement Health, we work with golfers and other sports people to develop programmes for just this purpose, yet it is unbelievable how many of us simply expect to play great golf at the weekend without ever doing anything else in the way of training.  They keep going like this until pain stops them. Often, that pain would have been entirely avoidable with the right fitness programme in place.

Here are some simple stretches and techniques to help keep your neck pain free and moving freely. Before you attempt any of these, I am presuming that you are not suffering from acute neck pain or injury. If you have anything other than mild stiffness in your neck or shoulders, you should  consult your GP or a qualified manual therapist for a professional assessment and exercise prescription.

Realignment and stretch

Use a mirror to check you are standing straight and looking straight ahead. Drop your head forward using only its weight and no pushing. Feel a relaxed stretch through the back of your neck and even into the top of your back. GENTLY contract the muscles at the front of your neck and pull your chin towards your spine. You will feel a double chin forming.  Hold in gentle contraction for 10 seconds and release. Repeat 5 – 8 times.  This gentle exercise is designed to ease the tension at the back of the neck, encourage realignment of the vertebrae and bring tone back to the often weaker deep neck flexors at the front of the neck.

Rotational stretch

Standing, reach one hand up and over to place your palm between your shoulder blades as far as is comfortable. Your elbow should be pointing up in the air and your palm should be flat against your spine. Rotate your head away from the elevated  arm. Feel the stretch in the side of your neck on that side. It can be an intense stretch so go easy. Hold for 3 seconds, return to neutral. Repeat this 5 times, then hold in stretch for 10 seconds on a 6th movement.


Shoulder relaxation

Shrug your shoulders up tightly. Hold and focus on what the contraction of these muscles feels like. After 5 seconds, breathe out and drop your shoulders loosely, using the exhalation as a “cue” to relax them completely. Repeat this as often as you like. The result should be that your shoulders will be an inch or so further from your ears than when you started this exercise!

If you would like to know more about preventing injury in golf or any other sport, or you suffer from neck and shoulder pain and are looking for lasting relief and an improvement in general fitness levels, contact Muscle and Movement Health to discuss how we can help you.

Anglesey and the North Wales area are also full of great golf courses and tuition opportunities. Whether you are just starting out in golf or want to take your game to the next level, getting a professional to look at your swing and give you some pointers is surely money well spent.  A few key tips about your movement patterns see you avoiding developing bad habits that can plague your game and your body for years. I can recommend golf tuition with golf pro Matthew Wharton at Treborth golf complex just outside Bangor North Wales. Matthew’s sessions are clear and simple, breaking down the golf swing into basics that will stand you in good stead for years. I was there just this morning having a lesson with Matthew and feel encouraged, focused and ready to practice my golf swing!





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