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Sports and Chronic Pain

Updated on August 27, 2015

Growing up I spent many years playing sports. By the time I was six or seven I was a player for the Blue Dolphins playing as an outfielder, where I finished my career nearly ten years later, a multi-year all star, and highly desired center fielder for my local travel team. As I entered high school, I chose to leave my glove and bat behind and opted for something a little more strenuous, girl’s water polo. More intense than the average softball game, water polo requires the use of all muscles and joints at all time. In the middle of my first game I experienced tiredness in both of my legs, a ball thrown square at my face, and cramping in my lower back.

While the tiredness and sore nose I could handle, the cramping in my back was another story entirely. Both debilitating and frustrating—no one wants to leave their first game—I found myself sitting on the sidelines for the next three games while my back pain eased up some. Fortunately, my back healed and I was able to play for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, I was one of few athletes that happened to fess up to their injury. Many athletes, pro and otherwise, keep their lips tight when they happen upon an injury that will take them out of the game, or potentially cost them their position. And even more unfortunate still, is that the longer these athletes go without treatment, the more likely it is that their injury may never heal.

The importance of coming clean about a sore back is obvious, if only to ensure that your health and future are pain free, but what most doctors do not find obvious are the reasons for keeping quiet in the first place. Aside from the previously mentioned fear of losing a position, or missing a tournament, an athlete’s silence is in large part due to their fear of the unknown—a fear of not knowing what is wrong with their spine and what it will take to heal correctly. To move past this fear, it is important to learn the four most common back injuries to the lumbar spine (lower spine) of an athlete, and to understand that these injuries will typically heal in time.

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Herniated Discs

To get to the point where a herniated disc (or ruptured disc) takes place, the spine experiences repeated high amounts of pressure. Encased in a slightly harder outer shell (or fibrous ring), a herniated disc happens when an intervertebral disc allows the soft inner portion to bulge out beyond the damaged surrounding rings. The pain that you feel with a herniated disc is due to the soft, jelly-like portion places inappropriate pressure on the spinal chord and nerves. With a herniated disc, the patient will typically feel numbness, tingling in the arms and legs, a change in reflexes, and moderate to severe pain. Muscle relaxers, cortisone injections, and other anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as rest are usually prescribed for athletes experiencing pain. Surgery is usually limited to those who experience continued pain and numbness after six weeks of treatment.


Spondylolysis, also known as Scotty Dog Fracture, occurs when a crack forms in the pars interarticularis in the spine, typically caused by extended stress to the bone and joint. It is most often found in athletes that engage in continued hyperextension of the spine, including: weightlifting, gymnastics, football, and pole vaulting. The prognosis for this condition is rather good and requires pain relievers and taking some time off to rest. When spondylolysis occurs on both sides of the vertebra, it results in spondylolisthesis.


Though sometimes due to a birth defect, arthritis, or some other trauma, spondylolisthesis occurs when a stress fracture occurs on both sides of a vertebra. The condition involves one vertebra forward over the bone below it, putting an extreme amount of pressure on your spinal chord and nerves. Symptoms will usually present themselves as pain in the back or buttocks, numbness, and weakness in the legs. While surgery can be an option to take the pressure off of the spine and nerves, spondylolisthesis can be treated and fixed by taking anti-inflammatories and stopping physical activity that lead to the injury in the first place.

Musculoligamentous Strain

More often referred to as back strain, musculoligamentous, is diagnosed after the more serious injuries are ruled out. Back strain includes tendons, ligaments, nerves, and muscles that may become inflamed and torqued with activity. The outlook for back strain is very good, and with rest and anti-inflammatories will not spread and worsen, but will instead heal with time.

Lower Back Pain Relief: Exercises and Stretches

So now you see. While most back injuries require some time off of your feet—and yes, away from your sport—they are not the end all of whether or not you will ever play again. However, prolonged admittance of your injury will not only affect the way that you play, but whether your back ever truly heals. Acknowledging a back injury early on will also encourage quicker healing time, and a better chance of getting you back on your feet, as you race into the game, mit at the ready.


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