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Back pain and sports

Bicycling - back pain; Golf - back pain; Tennis - back pain; Running - back pain; Weightlifting - back pain; Lumbar pain - sports; Sciatica - sports; Low back pain - sports

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Getting plenty of exercise and playing sports is good for overall health. It also adds pleasure and a sense of well-being.

Almost any sport places some stress on your spine. That is why it's important to keep the muscles and ligaments that support your spine flexible and strong. A healthy spine can help prevent many sports injuries.

Getting these muscles to the point where they support your spine well is called core strengthening. Ask your health care provider or physical therapist about these strengthening exercises.

If you had a back injury, talk with your provider about keeping your back safe when you return to sports.

Bicycling

Although bicycling strengthens the muscles of your legs, it does not do much for the muscles around your spine. Bending your lower spine forward while arching your upper back for long periods can strain your back and neck muscles. Mountain biking on uneven surfaces can cause jarring and sudden compressions (squeezing) on the spine.

Tips to help make bicycling easier on your back include:

The muscles that bring your leg up toward your abdomen are called flexors. They are used a lot when you ride a bicycle. Keeping these muscles stretched out is important because it will help keep the proper balance in the muscles around your spine and hips.

Weightlifting

Weightlifting can put a lot of stress on the spine. This is particularly true for people who are middle-aged and older because their spinal disks may dry out and become thinner and more brittle with age. Disks are the "cushions" between the bones (vertebrae) of your spine.

Along with muscle and ligament injuries, weightlifters are also at risk for a type of stress fracture in the back called spondylolysis.

To prevent injuries when weightlifting:

Golf

The golf swing requires forceful rotation of your spine, and this puts stress on your spinal muscles, ligaments, joints, and disks.

Tips to take the stress off your back include:

Running

The disks and the small joints in the back are called facet joints. Running causes repeated jarring and compression on these areas of your lumbar spine.

Tips to help reduce the stress on your spine include:

Tennis

Motions that place stress on your spine while playing tennis include overextending (arching) your back when serving, constant stopping and starting motions, and forceful twisting of your spine when taking shots.

A tennis coach or your physical therapist can show you different techniques that can help reduce the stress on your back. For example:

Before playing, always warm up and stretch the muscles in your legs and lower back. Learn exercises that strengthen the core muscles deep inside your abdomen and pelvis, which support your spine.

Skiing

Before skiing again after a back injury, learn exercises that strengthen the core muscles deep inside your spine and pelvis. A physical therapist may also help you to build strength and flexibility in the muscles that you use when you twist and turn while skiing.

Before you start skiing, warm up and stretch the muscles in your legs and lower back. Make sure you only ski down slopes that match your skill level.

Swimming

Although swimming can strengthen the muscles and ligaments in your spine and legs, it can also stress your spine by:

Swimming on your side or back can avoid these movements. Using a snorkel and mask may help decrease the neck turning when you breathe.

Proper technique when swimming is also important. This includes keeping your body level in the water, tightening your abdominal muscles somewhat, and keeping your head on the surface of the water and not holding it in a lifted position.

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.

Hertel J, Onate J, Kaminski TW. Injury prevention. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR. eds. DeLee, Drez, & Miller's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 34.

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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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