Low Back Pain in Athletes

Low back pain in athletes occurs at an alarmingly high rate.  Various studies suggest one- to two-thirds of athletes will experience low back pain during a competitive season.  Athletes are required to perform high-speed movements often with excessive loads.  Sports such as golf, baseball, gymnastics, hockey, and tennis require repetitive rotational movements that stress the bones, joints, and discs of the spine.   Repetitive rotation and extension (arching backward) with high forces at fast speeds contributes to injuries of the spine discs and bony structures.  Injured athletes must learn to control and dissipate these forces.  Thankfully, rehabilitation exercises can help the injured athlete get safely back to their sport.

Low Back Stress Injuries in Athletes

Stress reactions and stress fractures of the spine are common in young athletes.  The spine of children and adolescents are susceptible because the bones are still developing.  Spondylolysis is a crack or stress fracture in one of the vertebrae of the low back.  Most commonly, the stress fracture occurs in the fifth vertebra of the lumbar spine (L5).  In some cases, the stress fracture weakens the bone and the vertebra starts to shift or slip forward out of place. This condition is called spondylolisthesis.

Spondylolysis

In children and adolescents, this slippage most often occurs during a growth spurt.  The severity of the slippage is graded from 1 to 4.  Most athletes with grades 1 and 2 respond very well to a period of rest and rehabilitation.  The injured bone heals with rest from any repetitive rotation and extension movements involved in their sport.  Rehabilitation targets strength of the trunk muscles to help relieve stress on the healing bone.  Some higher-grade injuries may require surgery to stabilize the spine.

Research Support for a Safe Return to Sport

Athletes with stress injuries of the spine require a minimum of 3 months rest from their sport.  The severity of the injury and the nature of the sport may require longer periods of rest.  One study found excellent return to sport rates after 4.6 months of rest and rehabilitation across a number of sports.  A recent study showed baseball (54%), soccer (48%), and hockey (44%) to have the highest prevalence of stress injuries in boys.  Gymnastics (34%), marching band (31%), and softball (30%) were found to have the highest injury rates in girls.  Athletes in these sports may benefit from longer rest and rehabilitation periods.

A 2017 study from the Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH investigated the timing of referral to physical therapy in athletes with stress injuries of the spine.  Athletes who began physical therapy sooner were able to make a return to sport 25 days earlier than those who delayed treatment.  The early physical therapy group returned to sport at approximately 3 months.  The delayed physical therapy group returned after 4.5 months of rest and rehabilitation.   These studies suggest appropriate rest and early rehabilitation foster a safe and timely return to sport.

Common Rehabilitation Exercises for Athletes with Low Back Pain

Early rehabilitation for stress injuries of the spine begins with controlling pain and normalizing mobility.  Most athletes experience a significant reduction in pain once they are removed from sports activities.  Trunk and hip strengthening exercises begin in non-weight bearing positions such as on the back, side, or all-fours position.  Athletes are instructed on how to maintain a neutral spine position to minimize stress to the healing bone.  The curl-up and heel hover are two exercises that are initiated once the athlete can control this neutral spine position.

After the athlete can maintain a neutral spine in non-weight bearing positions exercises are progressed to kneeling and standing.  The athlete is taught to control rotation and extension of the spine through exercises such as the chop and Pallof press.

Anti-extension and anti-rotation exercises are emphasized during the later stages of rehabilitation.  The strength and endurance of the trunk muscles are progressively challenged with these exercises.  All exercises should be performed with a neutral spine and in a pain free manner.

Closing Thoughts on Low Back Pain in Athletes

Low back injuries can be frustrating for the young athlete.  Appropriate rest and rehabilitation can expedite a safe return to sport.  These 6 exercises are only a sample of the types of treatments that can help.  Meet with your physical therapist and get started on the road to recovery.  Your physical therapist will continually assess your injury and progress your exercise program based on your goals.  The objective is to get you back to your sport as quickly and safely as possible.  Contact us today if you have questions about which treatments are right for you.


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