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Returning to sports after a back injury

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You may play sports rarely, on a regular basis, or at a competitive level. No matter how involved you are, consider these questions before returning to any sport after a back injury:

Alternative names

Back injury - returning to sports; Sciatica - returning to sports; Herniated disc - returning to sports; Herniated disk - returning to sports; Spinal stenosis - returning to sports; Back pain - returning to sports

Which Type of Sport is Best?

In deciding when and if to return to a sport after having low back pain, the amount of stress that any sport places on your spine is an important factor to consider. If you would like to return to a more intense sport or a contact sport, talk to your provider and physical therapist about whether you can do this safely. Contact sports or more intense sports may not be a good choice for you if you:

Doing any activity over too long a period can cause injury. Activities that involve contact, heavy or repetitive lifting, or twisting (such as when moving or at high speed) can also cause injury.

When to Return to a Sport

These are some general tips about when to return to sports and conditioning. It may be safe to return to your sport when you have:

The type of back injury or problem you are recovering from is a factor for deciding when you can return to your sport. These are general guidelines:

Making Muscles and Ligaments Stronger and More Flexible

Large muscles of your abdomen, upper legs, and buttocks attach to your spine and pelvic bones. They help stabilize and protect your spine during activity and sports. Weakness in these muscles may be part of the reason you first injured your back. After resting and treating your symptoms after your injury, these muscles will most likely be even weaker and less flexible.

Getting these muscles back to the point where they support your spine well is called core strengthening. Your provider and physical therapist will teach you exercises to strengthen these muscles. It is important to do these exercises correctly to prevent further injury and strengthen your back.

Once you are ready to return to your sport:

When you are ready to begin the movements and actions involved in your sport, start slowly. Before going full force, take part in the sport at a less intense level. See how you feel that night and the next day before you slowly increase the force and intensity of your movements.

References

Ali N, Singla A. Traumatic injuries of the thoracolumbar spine in the athlete. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR. eds. DeLee, Drez, & Miller's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 129.

El Abd OH, Amadera JED. Low back strain or sprain. In: Frontera WR, Silver JK, Rizzo TD Jr, eds. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Musculoskeletal Disorders, Pain, and Rehabilitation. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 48.

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Review Date: 8/13/2020  

Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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