Back in the game: Sports injuries

When you work hard at playing sports, you can injure your back.  As the body’s center of gravity, the back is particularly prone to injuries.  Pounding the pavement while running places considerable stress on the lower back.  Tennis shots rotate the trunk and twist the spine which can strain back muscles.

Up to twenty percent of all sports injuries involve the lower back or neck.  Sudden movements can a tear a muscle, causing a strain; a sprain is a strain in a ligament (a band of tissue that connects bones).  When a muscle tightens or cramps in response to pain, that is a spasm.

Many injuries result from overuse: repetitive stress to muscles, ligaments and tendons.  Overuse weakens muscles and causes them to tighten up, which makes them more vulnerable to injury.  Then, suddenly in the middle of an activity, your back can no longer handle the stress and you feel pain.  An acute injury will last four to six weeks, a chronic injury for a longer period of time.

Treating back pain

You should consult a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe pain, swelling or numbness
  • Weakness–difficulty climbing stairs, coming up to a standing position, dragging feet
  • Difficulty standing with legs giving way or buckling
  • Pain or swelling in an old injury
  • An unstable joint that give way or “buckles”

If your injury is less severe, you can try self-care. Don’t exercise or play your usual sport if you feel pain.  Proper rest will help you heal along with gentle exercise, such as walking or swimming.  Back experts stress the importance of moving as soon as you feel able.  To ease swelling, apply ice for ten days to two weeks after the injury. After that you can use heat or ice, or alternate between them.

If your pain doesn’t improve after two weeks of self-care and it interferes with everyday activities, such as bending or climbing stairs, see your physician.  Getting assistance early can help you heal better.

When to resume athletic activity

Going back to your sport or activity too soon can aggravate your condition, prolong healing or cause another injury. Consult your physician or the medical professional treating your condition
before getting back in the game, especially if you have a chronic back condition or a previous injury.

When you do become active again, take it slow.  Don’t play as hard or run your usual distance the first time.  For example, try walking for ten minutes and running for five.  If you feel pain, stop and wait until your injury is healed to return to your activity.

Preventing injury

While it may not be possible to eliminate every little ache and pain, you can help prevent major injuries the following ways:

  • Warm up–start your exercise routine with light jogging or fast walking to increase circulation.  Stretch before and after working out to increase flexibility and relieve sore or tight muscles.
  • Wear protective equipment–if you run, wear comfortable, well-made shoes that fit properly.  If you play a sport use appropriate equipment and wear the appropriate protective gear: helmet, pads, mouthpiece, face guard, protective cup or eyewear.
  • Improve your technique–take lessons or get advice from a professional to ensure that you are using the proper form and technique.
  • Cross-train–if you play only one sport, you are using the same muscles which can lead to overuse.  Make sure your training includes exercises to keep you flexible and strong.
  • Drink enough fluids before, during and after exercise.
  • Know your limits–if you overdo your activity, you can experience a repetitive motion disorder, such as tennis elbow or tendonitis, or an overuse injury.  Don’t exercise to the point of exhaustion or pain and take breaks during practice or games.
  • Follow healthy habits–exercise is just one part of a healthy lifestyle.  It’s important to get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet and avoid smoking and excessive alcohol.
  • Exercise regularly–don’t be a weekend warrior. Consistent exercise will help your game and prevent injuries.
  • Stay on softer surfaces–play tennis on a clay court and run on flat surfaces, not bumpy or hilly trails.


National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (2005). What Are Sports Injuries? Retrieved January 24, 2008 from

National Library of Medicine, MedLinePlus (n.d.) Sports Injuries. Retrieved January 24, 2008 from