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What Every Athlete and Weekend Warrior Should Know About Sports-Related Back Pain

Taking part in competitive sports or recreational athletics can help you stay strong, fit, and healthy, whether you train like a serious athlete or you’re more of a laid-back weekend warrior.   

But every year in the United States, more than 8 million people sustain a sports or exercise-related injury, with acute overuse injuries ranking as the top complaint. When sports injuries affect your back, they don’t just take you out of the game — they can also affect your daily life. 

At Santa Cruz Osteopathic in Capitola, California, physical medicine and rehabilitation expert Richard Bernstein, DO, offers integrative, holistic care for sports-related back pain. Here’s what you should know about this relatively common problem.  

Sports-related back pain causes

Sports-related back pain usually occurs when a specific activity or a repeated action places more stress on your back than it can handle, resulting in an acute injury. 

While you run the risk of sustaining a sports injury any time you get in the game, you’re more likely to get hurt if you’re a deconditioned weekend warrior than if you’re a fit athlete who’s in top form. 

Regardless of your fitness level, your sports-related back pain probably stems from one of these common sports injuries:

Muscle strain

The result of acute microscopic tears in your muscle tissue, muscle strain can be caused by a moment of intense physical effort, although it’s just as likely to develop more gradually, through overuse

Athletes who lack proper conditioning, form, or flexibility are more prone to muscle strain.   

Ligament sprain

Ligament sprains are acute injuries that tend to occur with sudden, intense movements, such as pivoting too quickly on the basketball court or swinging too forcefully on the golf course.

Like muscle strains, ligament sprains are more likely to affect athletes with insufficient form or conditioning; they’re also more likely to develop from repetitive use. 

Tendon inflammation

As one of your spine’s strongest supporting structures, the tendons in your back may not be prone to strains or sprains, but they are vulnerable to painful inflammation.  

Tendon inflammation is a repetitive-use injury that appears most often in athletes who play the same sport and rarely cross-train. Without proper care, it can become an ongoing problem that leads to chronic back pain. 

Spinal disc trauma

Contact sports, or any sport that requires bodily contact between players, increases your risk of sustaining a spinal disc injury such as bulging or herniation. 

Disc injuries are more likely to affect the neck (cervical spine) or lower back (lumbar spine). When they occur in your lower back, you may experience radiating pain that extends through your buttock and down one leg.

Stress fracture

Less commonly, sports-related back pain is the result of a stress fracture in the lower spine. Also known as spondylolysis, this painful lower back injury occurs when repeated strain causes a crack called a stress fracture in the bony rear portion of your spinal column. 

It tends to affect athletes whose chosen activities require them to twist or hyperextend their spines repeatedly. 

Acute injury versus chronic pain

Most cases of sports-related back pain are acute, meaning the underlying injury tends to heal in a relatively short amount of time — typically within three months. Pain that persists beyond the three-month mark is considered chronic.

Acute back pain

Duration, not severity, is the defining factor of acute back pain. Whether it’s mild and sporadic or intense enough to restrict your range of motion, acute back pain can be resolved quickly and completely with the right care approach. 

Chronic back pain

While an acute back injury is more likely to become a chronic pain problem if it’s left untreated, it’s also possible to develop chronic back pain following a carefully managed sports injury. One in five cases of acute lower back pain persist long enough to become chronic.    

Know when to seek expert care

When it comes to sports-related back pain, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between a simple problem that will heal itself or a more serious injury that calls for expert care. 

Red-flag symptoms that should prompt you to call us include back pain that:

Sports-related back pain tends to feel better during movement and worse with inactivity. If your back pain feels worse after exercise, don’t hesitate to seek an evaluation. 

If sports-related back pain is interfering with your game, our team at Santa Cruz Osteopathic can help. Call 831-464-1605 to reach our office in Capitola, California, or click here to book an appointment with Dr. Bernstein any time.