You’ve been working out and you’re feeling great, so you head out for a game of golf, tennis or pick-up basketball. You get home and, boy, do you feel the pain in your back. A few days later, it’s still acting up. You have two choices: Get back to the gym and fight through the pain or get to a doctor and figure out what’s wrong.
If you’re interested in actually getting better and protecting your back, the right answer is to figure out what’s going on—and how best to treat it. Here are a few of the more common causes of back pain in athletes and how to treat that back pain.
- Back Muscle Strain/Back Ligament Sprain.A stretch or tear of one or more back muscles, ligaments or tendons often caused by a quick jerking or twisting or overextension of the back muscles during a lifting session. If you run right back to the gym before being fully rehabilitated, chances are good that it will develop into chronic lower back pain, which is the last thing anyone wants. Instead, follow the treatment plans of your physician or physical therapist before resuming your regular workout routine.
- Herniated disc/slipped disc.You have 26 bone vertebrae in your spine that are separated and kept in place by discs full of a jelly-like cushion. When one of these discs slips out of place, it can cause pressure on a nerve, which results in back pain. This can be caused by a fall, by repeatedly straining your back or by suddenly twisting your back violently—a motion seen in sports like football, golf and tennis. A herniated disc can usually be treated non-surgically with rest, anti-inflammatory medications, hot or cold packs, massage, physical therapy and core stabilization exercises. Steroid injections are sometimes given to reduce pain and swelling. Again, make sure you’re following the plan of your physical therapist and start back up slowly. This is no time to set new personal records.
- Mechanical Lower Back Pain.This is a frequent condition among athletes and is often caused by past injuries that have not healed properly, poor posture and poor physical conditioning. A precise anatomic cause of this type of pain can be identified only 20 percent of the time. Symptoms include general back pain, stiffness and restricted motion. The problem with this type of injury is that the athlete will unconsciously not engage the muscles of the back to avoid pain, which only worsens the situation. The best treatment for mechanical lower back pain is rest and regular physical therapy.
- Spondylolysis.This condition is caused by a specific defect in the connection between vertebrae that can lead to small stress fractures in the vertebrae, which weakens the bones so much that one slips out of place. There is no definitive cause of this disorder, but it is commonly found in those who participate in sports that have frequent hyperextension of the lumbar spine. Spondylolysis can be asymptomatic, but if symptoms occur the condition usually feels like chronic back pain that spreads across the lower back and is generally worse with vigorous exercise or activity. The suggested treatment is to take a break from sports and other activities until the pain subsides, along with physical therapy.
Lower back flexibility, hamstring flexibility and hip flexor flexibility are all key in maintaining a healthy back with proper curvature. Abdominal strength is equally important. Weak abdominals exaggerate the anterior pelvic tilt, causing strain on the back extensor muscles. Lastly, back extensor strength and endurance provide stability for the spine. Weak back muscles, in contrast, increase stress on the spine and cause compression.
The good news is that with prevention and early treatment, most back pain in athletes can be avoided or managed, meaning you won’t miss out on too much court or gym time. Stay flexible, keep your abs strong, listen to your body and seek medical advice when prudent.
Suffering from back pain? Make an appointment today with one of our orthopedic specialists.