According to the latest national health statistics report, 8.6 million people in the United States sustain sports or exercise-related injuries in an average year, with overuse injuries like sprains and strains ranking as a top complaint.
Although sports-related back and spine injuries aren’t quite as common as sports-related joint (ankle, knee, hip, elbow, and shoulder) injuries, they can be just as painful and immobilizing.
While some of these acute sports injuries get better on their own — typically in less than three months — injuries that cause persistent pain, radiating pain, or pain that worsens as time goes on require a doctor’s expert care. From the medical team at Powell Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, here’s what you should know.
Understanding sports-related back pain
While different activities can lead to different kinds of back and spinal injuries, most cases of sports-related back pain are caused by placing your back under more stress than it’s prepared to handle. Common sports-related back and spine injuries include:
Strains and sprains
Muscle strains and ligament sprains are the most common source of sports or exercise-related back pain among well-conditioned athletes and weekend warriors alike.
Painful microscopic tears in your muscles can be brought on by an acute physical strain, such as lifting heavy weights at the gym; they can also develop more gradually through overuse, insufficient conditioning, improper form or technique (body mechanics), or lack of stretching.
Spine-related injury and trauma
Volleyball, gymnastics, dance, competitive diving, and other activities that involve repetitive extension movements carry a greater risk of spine-related trauma. Such injuries tend to affect the spine’s supporting structures rather than the spinal column itself.
Tendon inflammation is a common overuse injury that often stems from repetitive motion. It tends to occur more often in athletes and exercisers who don’t cross-train. Without proper care, it can become an ongoing problem that leads to chronic back pain.
Sports that require extensive twisting and/or hyperextension of the spine are also more likely to cause stress fractures. Also known as spondylolysis, this painful lower back injury occurs when repeated strain causes a crack in the bony rear portion of your spinal column.
Football, ice hockey, lacrosse, and other contact sports increase your chances of suffering an acute disc injury, including slippage (bulging disc) or herniation (ruptured disc). While these injuries tend to occur in the lower back, they can cause radiating pain that extends through your hip and down your leg.
Knowing when to call your doctor
Mild to moderate sprains and strains, which account for most cases of sports-related back pain, typically heal on their own with self-directed care. Taking over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory pain relievers can help, as can engaging in the right combination of careful movement and rest.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell when back pain stems from a simple, self-resolving injury or when it’s caused by a more serious problem that requires expert care. Red-flag signs and symptoms that should prompt you to call your doctor include:
- Ongoing back pain that progressively worsens
- Persistent back pain that endures for more than two months
- Back pain that radiates through your hip or down into a leg
- Back pain that causes weakness or affects your balance
- Back pain that’s accompanied by bowel or bladder changes
Sports-related back pain tends to feel better during movement and much worse with inactivity. But if your back pain feels far worse after you’ve been active, it’s important to seek a diagnosis. When in doubt, always err on the side of caution and give your doctor a call.
Preventing sports-related back pain
Besides taking steps to ensure your sports injury is fully resolved before you get back in the game, there’s a lot you can do to prevent the recurrence of sports-related back pain.
The experienced specialists at Powell Orthopedics and Sports Medicine can show you how to improve core strength, flexibility, and stability, so your spine has all the support it needs to perform complex movements. They can also show you how to warm up, stretch, and perfect your form and technique for a more efficient, injury-free performance.
If you’re dealing with intense, persistent, or recurrent sports-related back pain, we can help. Call the office or request an appointment online with one of our seasoned experts at any time.