OTTAWA — A middle-aged golfer with an ailing back, a balky swing, prescriptions for painkillers and a burning desire for a return to form — turns out the archetypal aches-and-pains amateur has something in common with Tiger Woods after all.
As the fairways beckon Canada’s growing ranks of retiring baby boomers, the latest headlines swirling around the game’s legendary former world No. 1 offer a cautionary tale for anyone who might be hoping to resurrect past golf glories.
Golf, famously, is a game for life — especially for newly retired players anxious to reacquaint themselves. It’s also known for painful knee and back injuries, not to mention a mysterious, sometimes insatiable appetite for excellence, as Woods and countless others can attest.
Throw in an aging population and an epidemic of opioid abuse, and danger looms large, experts say.
“The whole chiropractic profession is standing up and trying to be an alternative to the pain management that opioids and the abuse of opioids present right now,” said Dr. Kelly Robazza, a Toronto chiropractor whose Beaches Health Group clinic is no stranger to golfers in search of relief.
“That extends in all facets — especially in performance — to the older golfer, for sure.”
Robazza knows players who depend on opioids like Percocet, OxyContin and Vicodin to function during the day, and to get ready for an important match or a tournament. Over time, by short-circuiting the body’s natural warning system, they end up doing even more damage.
“Pain is a signal to say, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong,’” he said. ”If you just blow right by it, it’s like — we use the analogy of running into a burning building, shutting off the fire alarm and running back out again.”
Robazza surmises that about 25 per cent of the people he treats are taking opioids.
“They’ve got to function, you know? They don’t necessarily want to do the right thing and fix the problem, if it is fixable — some of them are irreparably damaged by arthritis, it’s not going to go away, but they still want to function, they still want to do their thing.”
No one with chronic back pain should be receiving opiates to manage the problem, said Dr. Doug Richards, a sport and exercise medicine specialist with the University of Toronto’s faculty of kinesiology and physical education.
“No physician should ever prescribe opiates for back pain. That is terrible medicine,” said Richards, director of the MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic and the former team doctor for the Toronto Raptors.
“With the problems we’re seeing with opioid addiction and the negative effects we’re seeing with opiate abuse in our society, it — in my opinion — is unconscionable for physicians to prescribe opiates for chronic pain that is not related to a terminal illness.”
Canada is the world’s second-largest per capita user of prescription opioids, exceeded only by the United States, according to the latest numbers from the International Narcotics Control Board. Together, they account for 80 per cent of global opioid consumption.
Police in Jupiter, Fla., had to wake Woods when he was found asleep at the wheel of a damaged black Mercedes in the early hours of Monday morning, the engine running and right turn signal flashing. His speech was slow and slurred, though there was no alcohol in his system. Both right tires were flat.
Woods, 41, spent nearly four hours in a Palm Beach County jail on a charge of driving under the influence. The ensuing police mug shot dominated newspaper front pages Tuesday, marking another low point in the fall from grace of a man who ranks among the very greatest to ever play the game.
In a statement, Woods attributed the arrest to an “unexpected reaction” to prescription medicine, saying he takes “full responsibility” for his actions.
Last month, Woods — who has not competed since an aborted appearance at the Farmers Insurance Open in January — had fusion surgery on his lower back, his fourth back surgery since April 2014.
He told police he had taken several prescriptions. The police affidavit listed four medications, including Vicodin.
“I didn’t realize the mix of medications had affected me so strongly,” Woods said in his statement.
Recovering from multiple operations is one thing. But chronic back trouble, especially when it’s the result of flawed technique, demands a different approach to treatment, Richards said.
“Injuries can be caused by errors of quantity — doing too much — but more injuries are caused by errors of quality, moving badly. And with back pain and the golfer, that is very much the case,” he said.
“What happens with most golfers is they may do the good exercises, but then they go out and they do the lousy movements too. If they don’t change their swing and they keep repeating an over-rotation of the spine, they keep hurting the injured segment.”
First and foremost, said Richards, players need to seek professional help for both their back problems and their golf swings. Treating chronic back pain then becomes a matter of light aerobic work and remedial core stabilization exercises, and slowly ramping up as things improve.
“Back pain,” he said, ”is best treated by physical activity.”
Richards cited what he calls the “rule of 10s” — don’t increase the amount of activity by more than 10 per cent or so every couple of weeks.
“Someone who’s accustomed to playing golf once a week can’t suddenly start playing six times a week and not expect to run into problems,” he said.
Staying away from the game, however, is often the hardest part.
Robazza, an enthusiastic golfer himself, knows a thing or two about the sport’s allure, especially for professional players who excelled at it in their youth and now find themselves struggling to contend with the realities of getting older.
“You want to go back to Tiger and the guys on tour, where that’s the case,” Robazza said.
“We can dream about our good rounds, but they’ve got whole careers where they were in that place, in that zone, that they’re trying to recapture.”