Nearly 25 million Americans play golf, but for those with arthritis, staying in the game can be a challenge. From swinging a club to walking the course, golf relies heavily on joint action — and few things affect your joints like arthritis. As a golfer with the condition, you’re likely to experience stiffness in your arthritic joints, reduced range of motion, and achy hands and wrists.
But hanging up your clubs isn’t the answer — in fact, exercise is crucial for people with arthritis. It increases strength and flexibility, reduces joint pain, and helps combat fatigue. Regular exercise can also help you sleep better, which research shows keeps arthritis pain at bay and, as sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, writes, likely helps you get your game on.
Luckily, there’s a lot that golf lovers can do to stay in the swing of things. Whether you have osteoarthritis (OA) or “wear-and-tear” arthritis, the most common form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), where your immune system mistakenly attacks your joints, or one of the other 100-plus different forms of arthritis, this advice can help keep you on the course.
Warm Up Properly
“If you have arthritis or degenerative joint disease, warming up is probably the most important thing you can do prior to playing golf,” says Jay Umarvadia, MD, an Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Physician at Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama. “It helps maintain range of motion and reduces stress that can cause injury.”
Experts recommend a 20-minute warm-up for people with arthritis. Here’s the warm-up routine Dr. Umarvadia recommends:
- Stretch 10–15 minutes the morning you plan to golf.
- Spend another 5–10 minutes stretching before you get to the first tee box. Good moves include trunk twists, side bends, and arm circles. “Even walking to the first tee box [instead of taking a golf cart] can help you warm up and get loose,” says Dr. Umarvadia.
- Take a couple of practice swings at 50–75 percent of your normal swing. “You use your trunk a lot in golf, especially at the tee, so this will keep you from going in cold,” says Dr. Umarvadia.
For Sadiq Jiwa, a professional golfer who was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis at age 6, warming up and mobilizing his muscles and joints is key. Now, at 26, the disease still affects a good portion of his body, so he takes every opportunity to keep his body warmed up. “Even when you’re on the golf course in between shots, when you’re waiting for other players to hit, throw in a couple of stretches on your hips or back,” he advises. “Taking those few minutes to mobilize your muscles and joints will ultimately help the longevity of your game — whether you’re able then to play longer, play without pain, or play more frequently.”
Strengthen Your Core
A regular conditioning program that strengthens the muscles surrounding the joints involved in golf — such as the hand and forearm, shoulder, and hip — can improve your game and lessen the chance of injury.
Golfers with arthritis may want to spend extra time on exercises that strengthen the core muscles, including the abdominal muscles, back muscles, and the muscles around your pelvis. “Having a strong core takes stress off the upper and lower extremities, which can reduce pain and prevent arthritis from flaring up,” says Dr. Umarvadia.
A strong core also improves ball striking and accuracy, as well as increases the distance you can hit the ball. “Your core is your engine and your arms and legs are the spokes of the wheel,” Dr. Umarvadia explains. “Keeping your core strong and limber is important when swinging a golf club, so you can swing powerfully without losing your balance or control of the club.”
Adjust Your Swing
“Every single golf swing is different,” says Jiwa. “Just because yours doesn’t look like Tiger Woods’ or Brooke Henderson’s doesn’t mean you can’t create your own swing that can still work.”
The key, he says, is to adjust how your body moves to make a repetitive golf swing. “I don’t swing the golf club as conventionally or technically sound as someone without arthritis,” he says. “I’ve had to make adjustments over a period of time to fashion a swing that I can continue to perform day in and day out and that will see some success.”
Some general tips include keeping your back straight to avoid stressing it and shifting your weight properly — from one leg to the other — on the downswing. “If you have back pain, stopping at the 3 o’clock position — almost doing a chip shot — can keep stress off the upper body, back, shoulders, and elbows,” says Dr. Umarvadia, who suggests working with a golf pro to individualize the mechanics of your swing based on your physical ability or limitations.
The shafts of graphite clubs are lightweight and can reduce vibrations in the arms and shoulders. If steel shafts feel better in your hands, consider clubs made of lightweighter steel.
Other equipment switches to consider:
- Longer clubs help you stand straighter and save you from bending down.
- Longer tees let you stand taller and reduce the risk of inadvertently striking the ground.
- Low-compression golf balls are softer and yield less resistance when hit, reducing joint-jarring strain.
Get a (Better) Grip
You can buy golf clubs with oversized grips, which are thicker than regular grips and decrease pressure and tension on your hands and fingers — a plus for those who have arthritis in these areas. But you can also build up grip size with athletic tape by yourself — adding one or more layers of grip tape that the rubber grip will stretch over — or have oversized grips installed on your clubs at your local golf store or pro shop.
They can make a big difference, says Jiwa. He started playing with jumbo-sized grips with extra wrapping underneath a few years ago, to make up for not having as much grip pressure or range of motion in his wrists as other players have, due to his arthritis. “I probably have one of the largest grips on the entire tour,” he says.
The change has paid off: Since switching to oversized grips, his wrists don’t hurt anymore. As a bonus, larger grips may improve swing consistency, which is another reason some golf pros build up their grips. Another handy tip for those with arthritic hands: Consider wearing wrist braces and gloves on both of your hands to help stabilize your joints.
Take a Ride
Walking the course may provide significantly higher health benefits, but riding in a golf cart may be the only way to stay in the game for those with exacerbated joint pain and inflammation.
Indeed, a new study showed that in people with knee OA, walking the course did lead to a significant increase in knee joint pain. If your arthritis still allows you to walk the course, only take the clubs you’ll use during the game to lighten the load of your golf bag. (A few facts to keep in mind: You may be walking five miles if you play 18 holes and a full golf bag weighs 30 pounds on average. That’s a lot when every pound of extra weight puts four pounds of excess force on your knees and hips.) Consider getting a push or pull bag with a wheeled cart as well, so you don’t have to carry your kit.
Wear the Right Shoes
There’s no “best” shoe for people with arthritis; it really depends on the type of arthritis you have and where it affects you. For golfers, that’s often the feet. Due to the movement of the foot and the transfer of weight that occurs during the follow-through of their swing, golfers are particularly prone to a form of degenerative arthritis known as hallux limitus (aka big toe stiffness), which can progress to a more severe form called hallux rigidus.
A shoe with a wide toe box and a rocker-type bottom is often recommended for this condition, which limits the toe’s range of motion and causes intense pain, swelling, and tenderness around your big toe joint.
Wondering whether you should hang up your spikes? While spiked golf shoes can provide traction to increase stability and power when swinging through the ball, spikeless shoes are generally more comfortable for people with foot arthritis. Not only are they lighter, but they also eliminate the added pressure points where your foot stands over the cleats. This can be a real blessing for people with inflammatory arthritis, such as RA or gout, who are prone to metatarsalgia, a condition in which the ball of your foot becomes painful and inflamed.
Know Your Limits
“My advice to athletes is ‘let pain be your guide,’” says Becca Rodriguez Regner, DO, a family health and sports medicine doctor in San Diego. She recommends observing your baseline for arthritis pain and stopping or reducing activity that exacerbates it. “It’s never OK to push through pain, especially if it doesn’t allow you to make the full motion at full strength,” says Dr. Regner, who also serves the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee as a Team USA physician.
An injured or fatigued muscle or joint will allow the body to compensate and overuse other structures that can become painful or injured. Pay attention to your body and make game modifications when necessary: Play nine holes instead of 18 or tee off from the forward tees, which can shave 1,000 to 1,500 yards off the course. Or, conversely, accept that pain and stiffness beyond the norm may be your body’s way of saying today is your day off, says Jiwa. “Part of my management process is learning where my pushing line is. Some days I just say, today is not the day for me to do anything.”
Adjust Your Mindset
Whatever your handicap, golf can be an excellent mood booster. Angelo Spagnolo, who Golf Digest named “America’s Worst Avid Golfer,” said “I don’t let birdies and pars get in the way of having a good time.”
Unfortunately, when you have a chronic disease like arthritis, it’s hard not to let your symptoms affect your mood. In turn, negativity can heighten pain perception, so you feel the disease more, both physically and emotionally. It may be natural to get down in the dumps when you can’t golf like you used to, but try not to waste mental energy during a round by keeping a close watch on your scores, fearing failure, or dwelling on anything you truly cannot control, says Deborah Graham, PhD, a licensed counseling psychologist, who specializes in golf performance. “Enjoy the process,” she advised in a recent blog post. “The most successful golfers are the ones who keep it fun.”
Get on the Road to Recovery
Recovery after exercise offers a myriad of benefits to joints and muscles, including helping to prevent soreness and inflammation and increasing range of motion. There are many ways to recover: stretching (aim to hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds), massage, icing, and hydrotherapy, to name a few. Even a hot shower can enhance blood flow and soothe stiff joints and tired muscles.
Jiwa can spend the better part of an hour cooling down: He swears by using a foam roller, which loosens muscles and relieves pressure on nearby joints, but also employs contrast water therapy, which alternates from hot to cold, to increase circulation and pump inflammation out of the joints. For the casual golfer, even 10 minutes can make a huge difference.
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Grip Build-Up: Your Secret to More Control Could Be Under Your Grip. Golf Pride. October 21, 2021. https://www.golfpride.com/blog/golf-grip-tape-build-up-how-to/.
Interview with Becca Rodriguez Regner, DO, a family health and sports medicine doctor in San Diego
Interview with Jay Umarvadia, MD, an orthopaedic & sports medicine physician at Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama.
Jayabalan, P et al. “Acute Physiological Effects of Continuous Versus Intermittent Walking During Golf in Individuals With Knee Osteoarthritis: A Pilot Study.” American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. May 2022. doi: https://doi.org/10.1097/PHM.0000000000001855.
Wei, Y et al. “Insomnia Really Hurts: Effect of a Bad Night’s Sleep on Pain Increases With Insomnia Severity.” Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2018. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00377.