Returning to sports after a back injury


You may play sports only rarely, play a sport on a regular basis, or play a sport at a competitive level. No matter how involved you are in a sport, consider these questions before returning to your sport after a back injury:

  • Do you still want to play the sport, even though it stresses your back?
  • If you continue with the sport, will you continue at the same level or play at a less intense level?
  • When did your back injury occur? How severe was the injury? Did you need surgery?
  • Have you talked about wanting to return to the sport with your doctor, physical therapist, or other health care provider?
  • Have you been doing exercises to strengthen and stretch the muscles that support your back?
  • Are you still in good shape?
  • Are you pain-free when you do the movements your sport requires?
  • Have you regained all or most of the range of motion in your spine?

Which type of sport is best?

When deciding whether to return to a sport after having low back pain, consider the amount of stress that sport places on your spine. Intense or contact sports can put more stress on your back. So, be sure to talk with your provider and physical therapist to be sure you can safely do the sport. Contact sports or more intense sports may not be a good choice for you if you:

  • Have had surgery on more than one level of your spine, especially if spinal fusion is done
  • Have more severe spine disease in the areas where the middle of the spine and the lower spine join
  • Have had repeated injury or surgery in the same area of your spine
  • Have a spine that has smaller space for your spinal cord and nerves

Doing any activity over too long a period of time can cause injury. Activities that involve contact, heavy or repetitive lifting, or twisting (especially when moving or at high-speed) can also cause injury.

It's also a good idea to learn how to reduce back pain when doing your sport.

When to return to a sport

These are some general tips about when to return to sports and conditioning. It may be safe to return to your sport when you have:

  • No pain or only mild pain.
  • Normal or almost normal range of motion without pain.
  • Regained enough strength in the muscles related to your sport and ability to protect your spine.
  • Regained the endurance you need for your sport.
  • Make sure you do longer warmups before your sport and ice your back afterwards.

The type of back injury or problem you are recovering from is a factor for deciding when you can return to your sport. These are general guidelines:

  • After a back sprain or strain, you should be able to start to return to your sport within a few days to several weeks if your symptoms have resolved.
  • After a slipped disk in one area of your spine, with or without having a surgery called microdiskectomy, most people recover in 1 to 6 months. You must do exercises to strengthen the muscles that surround your spine and hips for a safe return to sports. Many people are able to return to a competitive level of sports.
  • After having a slipped disk and other problems in more than one area of your spine, return to sports needs to be done carefully. You should be under the care of a provider or physical therapist. You should take even more care after surgeries that involve fusing bones of your spine together.

Making muscles and ligaments stronger and more flexible

Large muscles of your abdomen, upper legs, and buttocks attach to your spine and pelvic bones. They help stabilize and protect your spine during activity and sports. Weakness in these muscles may be part of the reason you first injured your back. After resting and treating your symptoms after your injury, these muscles will most likely be even weaker and less flexible.

Getting these muscles back to the point where they support your spine well is called core strengthening. Your provider and physical therapist will teach you exercises to strengthen these muscles. It is important to do these exercises correctly to prevent further injury.

Once you are ready to return to your sport:

  • Warm up with an easy movement such as walking. This will help increase blood flow to the muscles and ligaments in your back.
  • Stretch the muscles in your upper and lower back and your hamstrings (large muscles in the back of your thighs) and quadriceps (large muscles in the front of your thighs).
  • Ice the muscles in your back after activities to reduce swelling

When you are ready to begin the movements and actions involved in your sport, start slowly. Before going full force, take part in the sport at a less intense level. See how you feel that night and the next day before you slowly increase the force and intensity of your movements.

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Review Date: 4/3/2018

Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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