3 reasons youth athletes experience lower back painMarch 29, 2019 | by Katie Meredith, Hydrotherapy and Performance Rehabilitation Coach
'Lower back pain' is something that over 70% of adults experience at some point in their lives – but surely our kids are ‘too young’ to be grabbing their backs in pain at the end of the day?
The prevalence of back pain in young athletes is increasing. Approximately 10 – 15% of all young athletes suffer from lower back pain!
Why? Sports like dance, gymnastics, soccer, football, rowing and racquet sports inherently pose a higher risk due to high amounts of movement at the spine. Girls also tend to experience lower back pain at higher rates than boys, potentially due to differences in growth rates, as well as greater ranges of motion through the spine.
There are also a number of other factors, that can cause back pain in youth athletes, that are both preventable and treatable.
1. Muscle imbalance and weakness
Muscular back pain (pain in our back muscles versus our spine) is the most commonly reported diagnosis of back pain in youth athletes.
There are a multitude of muscles and ligaments in our back. Some have a supportive or stabilizing role, and some are primarily for movement of the spine. In correct combination, these muscles allow us to move freely during sport, as well as to protect our spine when we perform movements like jumping to head the ball, twisting to dodge an opponent, or lunging to return a pass.
If the supportive muscles aren’t strong enough to withstand these loads, or are stronger on one-side than the other, then the bigger ‘movement’ muscles may be recruited to help stabilize – which can increase the pressure on spinal structures, and increase risk of injury.
This is preventable. Education on the control of spinal movements can help young athletes to correctly support their bodies during high spinal-movement sports. Increasing the strength of their back and abdominal muscles as well as hip stabilizers, legs and shoulders will also further increase the capacity to withstand the loads of their chosen sports.
2. Stress Fractures
Playing a variety of sports is integral to the development of well-rounded athletic skills in youth. Yet a high amount of physical activity in different forms can potentially expose the adolescent spine to injury.
Firstly, the high-impact nature of playing many sports can increase risk of stress fractures in the spine. This can then lead to a secondary condition called Spondylolisthesis.
Spondylolisthesis refers to a ‘slip’ of a vertebrae, usually in the lumbar spine, and is often associated with a fracture of the vertebrae called spondylysis. This is a common diagnosis in youth, particularly in high impact sports such as gymnastics.
Signs of spondylolisthesis may include pain at the lumbar spine, buttocks and down the back of the legs; which may be relieved through flexing the spine.
Similar to muscular back pain, the risk of stress fractures can be reduced by learning how to correctly control movement, and by activating the correct ‘stabilizer’ muscles in the spine—especially in sports with heavy landings and loading. Additionally, good ‘mobility’, or the alibility to control full range of motion at our joints, can also help to further support the spine.
3. Overuse and Repetitive Strain
Playing any sport at a high level is inevitably going to incur some degree of repeated motion, such as pitching a baseball, serving a tennis ball or landing a somersault.
As young athletes excel in their sport, high repeated activity through a potentially ‘weak’ or underdeveloped spinal structure could be a warning sign for injury. Just as adults are told to employ a range of postural positions throughout the day, a range of movement in youth sport will help to build a resilient spine.
Of course, practicing key skills is important to excel in sport, but tools such as tracking the total number of actions practiced over the week may help to control high and potentially dangerous repetition. For example, professional baseball pitchers will track the number of practice throws per week and their intensity (a percentage of maximum velocity), to prevent excessive overload, or change in load, to the shoulder.
Education and Treatment
The good news is most back pain in children is acute and tends to resolve within 3 months. It is also manageable through a good understanding of control and stability at the spine. Without the right treatment, prolonged lower back pain can occur, and may increase the likelihood of experiencing back pain in adult years.
At Fortius, we offer an 8-week small group program called Back In the Game, which teaches youth athletes (ages 11 – 16) strategies to self-manage their back pain through mobility, stability and strength training, ultimately increasing their load-bearing capacity and total-body resilience as athletes. The multi-disciplinary program is run by therapists and strength & conditioning coaches, designed to return youth athletes to physical activity.
With the support of our donors, the Fortius Foundation helps subsidize the cost of BACK in the Game to help aspiring youth athletes return to play. This program is also generously supported by TELUS.
Our next cycle starts April 9, 2019! Learn more at www.fortiussport.com/back-in-the-game