Heading into his 60s, Scottsdale resident Vito Berlingeri was trying to do the right thing. A former college basketball player who also played professional hoops in Italy, he didn’t take up golf until his 40s. Once he did though, he loved it, working his way to a single-digit handicap. Adhering to a golf-focused exercise routine three times a week was helping the Bronx, N.Y., native stave off the inevitable loss of swing speed and distance that comes with aging. But during a workout in January of 2013, he hit an impact bag with an iron and immediately realized something had gone wrong. “My right wrist bent at an awkward angle and I later learned a tendon had tore off my right elbow,” said Berlingeri, who is the membership marketing manager at Desert Forest Golf Club in Carefree. “It hurt like hell. I didn’t know the severity of the injury, so I kept playing golf and working out. My handicap went up to 12 because of it.”
He saw a chiropractor and acupuncturist, but relief didn’t come until he met Dr. Dean Cummings, an expert in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at The Orthopedic Clinic Association (TOCA). An official sponsor of the Arizona Golf Association, TOCA started in 1949 and has locations in Glendale, Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe.
“Most golfers just want to keep playing and don’t want to do the therapy associated with getting better,” said Dr. Cummings. “They just want the pain to go away miraculously.” Berlingeri might have fallen into that group of instant gratification. But Dr. Cummings kept it real. “When I went into his office, Dr. Cummings greeted me like he had known me for 30 years,” said Berlingeri. “He told me with surgery and physical rehab, I would be back to hitting golf balls within seven weeks.” That’s exactly what happened, with Berlingeri able to play18 holes just three months after surgery. But then in February of 2015, he felt a twinge in his right knee during a workout. A return visit to Dr. Cummings uncovered a torn medial meniscus. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery, Berlingeri embarked on physical therapy and wore a custom brace for nine months. His first surgery had prepared him for No. 2. “Vito’s recovery in both cases did not happen overnight,” said Dr. Cummings. “He understood that it was going to be a slow progression with multiple treatments. “We scoped his knee, but once we cleared up his meniscus, we found arthritis requiring injections to coat the knee. But if he didn’t work consistently on his core strength and overall fitness, his recovery would have taken much longer. “If you take an integrated, multidisciplinary approach like we do at TOCA, you can do the right thing for the patient. A surgeon can’t do it all. You need a physical therapist, trainers and a golf professional who understand the body mechanics of the golfer. Put that all together in a plan and the golfer will do well.”
Over 40 percent of AGA members report that they play with chronic pain. “Golf is an incredibly dynamic sport where there are a lot of moving patterns going on during the swing at one time,” said Dr. Cummings. “If there is one thing that’s off — in your shoulder, elbow, wrist or knee, for example — it can ruin the whole swing. “When that happens golfers try to compensate in some way. That can lead to injury down the line.” Associated with TOCA since 2001, Dr. Cummings estimates that up 40 percent of patients he sees play golf, including numerous PGA Tour professionals. No matter the skill level, he encourages all golfers to take injury prevention measures, especially keeping your core strong. “You also have to understand that you can’t go hit balls cold,” said Cummings. “You have to spend at least 10-15 minutes warming up in what I call a combination dynamic and static workout. That’s doing some stretches plus some movement patterns. I also recommend stretching while you’re playing.”
These days the 62-year-old Berlingeri feels fantastic and is without pain in his elbow or knee. “I can make a full swing and my game is coming along. I’m just not playing enough,” he said. “Your body only has so much time before wear and tear happens. I’ve recommended other golfer friends with injuries go to Dr. Cummings at TOCA ever since.” Getting an accurate diagnosis and then a plan is critical to the process, Berlingeri and his physician agreed. “At TOCA we provide an excellent assessment while looking at the whole body and not just at an individual body part,” Dr. Cummings said. “We also make sure that each patient is treated with conservative therapeutic management first, and then surgery if needed. I think we have doctors in our group who are phenomenally gifted, but the good thing is they know when to operate, which is very important.”
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