If he had it to do over again, Paul Loughridge probably wouldn’t climb down a ravine to retrieve a stray golf ball.
His friends joke with him about this, now that he’s recovered from the surgery that was needed to repair a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder—the result of his tumbling down that ravine at Scott Lake Country Club in 2012.
Rotator cuff surgery because of a $4 golf ball? Not what he was after.
Yet looking back, Loughridge, 59, thinks he’s better off today than he was before that surgery—and a second surgery that followed it, in 2014, to repair an overuse injury in his other shoulder.
Years of wear and tear
“After the first surgery I got back on the golf course and said, ‘Man, my right shoulder feels like a million bucks but my left shoulder is getting to the point I can’t hardly pull the golf club through.’ I realized how much both shoulders had been hurting before.”
Decades of athletics had taken their toll.
“I think both shoulders kind of got worn out,” said Loughridge, who played football for Hesperia High School, played league basketball into his late 40s, and has been an avid golfer for more than 35 years.
“For the last 25 years I’ve played at least three times a week, and for the last four years I’ve played at least five times a week. I play a lot of golf—it’s my passion.”
Loughridge’s surgeon was Peter Ugolini, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon with Spectrum Health Medical Group who specializes in the shoulder and elbow. Dr. Ugolini said shoulder pain and problems are common in golfers because of the sport’s repetitive nature.
“A lot of people don’t think of golf as an injury-prone sport because it’s not a contact sport, but it’s extremely repetitive, especially for players who play or practice a lot. So it makes certain parts of the body vulnerable to injury, including the shoulder,” Dr. Ugolini said.
The most common shoulder injuries for golfers are rotator cuff tears and strains, labrum tears, arthritis, and a condition called frozen shoulder.
No rush to surgery
Although both of Loughridge’s injuries required surgery, Dr. Ugolini said most golfing-type shoulder injuries can be treated non-operatively—for example, with physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, a home exercise program and the use of ice for swelling or heat for muscle tightness.
If these treatments fail or if the damage is structural, causing disability and persistent pain, an orthopaedic specialist may recommend surgery. Arthroscopic surgery is common today.
Prevention is the No. 1 thing anyone playing any kind of sport can do to help avoid shoulder injuries, said Dr. Ugolini.
That’s true for injuries caused by repetition and overuse, like Loughridge’s, as well as for the kinds of acute strains people suffer when they dive into an activity without warming up.
The shoulder has the greatest range of motion of any joint in the body.
“It has all these planes of movement, which gives us a wide array of arm function,” Dr. Ugolini explained. “But that comes at a price because the shoulder is very dependent on the soft tissues to keep it mechanically sound and centered properly. Things can go awry pretty easily if you’re not conditioned appropriately or warmed up.”
Dr. Ugolini admits to not always practicing what he preaches.
“I know what I do: One of the first warm days I’ll grab my golf clubs and start hitting golf balls, and I’m not really conditioned to do that. A lot of people do that, and you’re definitely more prone to injury during those times.”
To keep their shoulders limber, Dr. Ugolini gives patients a series of simple stretches:
- Reach for the sky—get your arms up all the way over your head.
- Try to scratch your back—both over the shoulder and back up behind your back.
- Give a friend a hug—bring your arms out in front and then across your body, one at a time.
- Get into a relaxed position with your hands behind your head—and then drop your arms back behind you.
The golf swing is unique, he said, “because you’ve got two arms that are doing completely opposite things. So if you’re a right-handed golfer, injuries to the left upper extremities are more common because that arm is more active—it’s the lead arm.”
Why live with the pain?
Loughridge was a bit surprised by the pain following surgery and the intensive physical therapy he had to go through to get his shoulders back in shape. But the results make it all worthwhile, he said.
“I’m really glad I had the two surgeries. Today my shoulders don’t hurt at all, and I can do about everything I want to do. Dr. Ugolini did a really good job.”
His advice to other golfers? “If you have pain and it’s bothering you, go ahead and get it looked at. Why wait?”