Back Pain in Young Athletes and Football Players

Avoid Back Injuries to Keep your Athlete on the Field
by Marcus Ribant, Coopersville School District Athletic Trainer

Because I work with students every day, I see firsthand the injuries that can occur as a result of participating in sporting activities. Low back pain is one of the most common injuries I see. In fact, low back pain occurs in up to 15% of young athletes. Back injuries are more common in sports like weightlifting, wrestling, soccer and you guessed it, football. Research shows that 25% of college football players have had a back injury during their playing career. Common youth football back injuries are stress fractures and muscle strains, but early intervention and treatment can assist in a quick recovery and return to participation. 

Symptoms of back injuries in athletes:
– Back pain usually starts as an ache and turns into constant or intermittent pain
– Pain is often in the lower or middle back
– Pain may radiate into the buttocks and thighs or even the toes
– Discomfort during impact activities such as running, jumping or moving
– Pain can increase with sitting in some, but not all, back injuries
– Numbness, tingling, or weakness in hips, legs, and feet can also be a result of back injuries

Back pain and low back pain should always be addressed by a health care provider. I work not only with the students in the Coopersville school district, but also with athletes who come into Northern Physical Therapy. I can immediately assess those with back pain and begin treatment or offer referral suggestions. Treatment of low back injuries can vary dependent on the diagnosis. Initial treatment may include positional exercises to eliminate pain, ice, electric stimulation, medications, manual physical therapy, bracing, and exercises.

What causes back pain and back injuries?
Fractures of the low back known as Spondylolysis or Spondylolisthesis can occur from a single high energy impact or over time from repetitive hyper extension of the lumbar spine. Young athletes are at a higher risk of sustaining these injuries during periods of rapid growth in which muscles and ligaments are unable to keep pace with bone growth. This results in muscle imbalances and decreased flexibility leaving the athlete vulnerable to suffering a compressive force injury. Other factors that place athletes at risk of low back injuries include poor technique, weak abdominal musculature, and tight hip flexors and hamstrings. These factors combine to create an increase in lumbar lordosis, or anterior curvature of the lower spine, which ultimately lead to back pain or low back pain.
Athletes should start general strength and fitness programs several weeks prior to the start of the season. This will allow for the athlete to gradually increase the frequency and intensity of the program at a safe rate and develop proper form to protect the individual from potential injury. Fitness programs should also incorporate core-strengthening exercises and stretches for hip flexors and hamstrings to help reduce risk of injury. Always remember, proper technique and posture may be the biggest factor to preventing injuries and back pain, so be sure to get help from a trained professional. 

At Northern PT we believe, that prevention is the best strategy so your young athletes have a lower risk of hurting their backs.

Tips to reduce the chances of a back injury
Strength, agility and weight training year around keep muscles strong and prepared
Core exercises, often skipped by young athletes, including butt and ab exercises are essential in weight training
Stretching hamstring and hip flexors, without arching or slouching the spine, will decrease strain on the spine. A 10 second stretch will just wake up the muscle, to really get that muscle to be more flexible it is best if the stretch is held for 1-2 minutes, 5x weekly
Pre-season ramp up in intensity of strength, fitness and drills help muscles prepare for impact demands
Proper technique for weight lift training will decrease low back pain risk
Lift appropriate weights heavy enough to work the target muscle but not so heavy you arch or strain your back or cheat by using the wrong muscles
Form is everything, it gets you stronger in the right muscles and keeps you safer

I’m happy to show you how to do these stretches and exercises, call me at 616.997.6172 with any questions!

Bronco Boot Camp is Back!
Northern Physical Therapy offers a Bronco Boot Camp (we also have one through our athletic trainer in the Cedar Springs school district). Our camp is offered each summer and focuses on increasing strength, flexibility, endurance and speed. Get more details or sign up here.

We want your young athlete to have a fun and safe season that is injury free. We hope these tips can help you encourage and support your athlete and to keep him or her on the field the entire season.

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