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Back Pain and Athletes

By: Suzanne Elvidge BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 29 Jul 2017 |
Back Pain Athletes Injury Distance

Many people suffer from back pain, especially lower back pain, as a result of some type of injury. Because athletes have such high levels of activity, they are at greater risk of injuries to all their joints, including their backs. Up to 10% of athletes’ injuries may be related to back injuries.

Back Injuries Specific to Athletes

Back injuries may be caused by repetitive movements, such as those used by rowers and golfers, or twisting movements, such as in tennis and gymnastics, or may be a result of overuse, perhaps from ramping up training too quickly, especially when unfit. They can also be as a result of a fall.

The most common acute back injuries in athletes are muscle strains and sprains. While painful, these are self-limiting and will resolve with ice, anti-inflammatories and temporary rest from the sport, along with gentle movement, stretching and exercise.

Some athletes may develop chronic back problems, particularly in particular sports. Degenerative disc disease (see also ‘Degenerative Disc Disease’) is caused by wear and tear on the discs between the vertebrae. Weightlifters can be at increased risk of disc degeneration. Symptoms include low back pain that worsens with lifting, bending or twisting. Degenerative disc disease is treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and specific exercises to strengthen the muscles around the back.

Spondylolysis is a stress fracture of one of the lower vertebrae in the back, and is most likely in young people who over-train in certain sports that involve a lot of bending backwards (hyperextension), including gymnastics, wrestling, pole vaulting, figure skating, American football, tennis, martial arts and diving. Spondylolysis can also lead to spondylolisthesis, when one vertebrae slips over another. Symptoms include chronic low back pain. These conditions are treated with rest, a back brace, and carefully monitored exercise. Surgery may be necessary in severe cases.

Sacral stress fractures occur in runners, including those taking part in track, and long distance runners, such as marathon runners. Symptoms are similar to those of disk diseases. Treatment of these includes a reduction in running, and then a gradual return to activity.

Sports that mostly use one arm, such as golf or baseball, or bowling in cricket, can cause problems in the upper back.

All athletes can develop overuse injuries, especially when starting out. Leaving injuries untreated can run the risk of injuries getting worse and/or becoming chronic.

How to Prevent Back Pain in Athletes

In order to avoid the risk of developing back injuries through sport, it is important that athletes learn the correct techniques and skills, and be aware of the early signs of injury.

Maintaining as much flexibility as possible can reduce the chance of getting a back injury. Cross training, for example adding in stretching exercises such as yoga, or exercises to strengthen the core muscles, such as Pilates, can help athletes balance difference muscle groups and avoid back pain.

Keeping fit throughout the off-season is vital, as is warming and stretching up before exercise. Athletes with back pain that does not resolve in a few days, is severe, leads to buttock and leg pain, includes leg or foot weakness, or involves tingling and numbness, should consult a doctor.

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