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Lowering the Risk of Lower Back Injuries in Young Athletes

Written by Kara Carter, M.D. on Oct 4, 2017, 8:09:00 AM

As youth sports and the push for potential scholarships become increasingly competitive, injuries become more common. Lower back injuries in young athletes must be taken seriously to avoid permanent damage, but a better strategy is to prevent them. 

Common Lower Back Sports Injuries

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Athletes in certain sports like football, gymnastics and dance are at higher risk for back injuries often brought on by overuse or quick onset of back pain. 

Many of the young athletes I treat have a condition known as spondylolysis, which is a stress fracture of the lumbar spine usually caused by the repetitive flexion, extension and rotation experienced in nearly every major sport, including skating, fencing, basketball, football, baseball, gymnastics and rowing. Besides lower back pain, spondylolysis can include leg pain and muscle spasm, which parents sometimes mistakenly attribute to sciatica. 

Spondylolysis is usually diagnosed after a physical exam, X-ray and other imaging tests. In most cases, conservative treatment – rest, restricting heavy weight lifting and possibly bracing – to resolve pain, followed by physical therapy and, finally, more aggressive conditioning is sufficient to get the athlete back into playing health. Less commonly, surgery may be required.   

Diagnosis and treatment of spondylolysis is important. Untreated, it could lead to spondylolisthesis – a condition that occurs when a vertebra in the back slides forward over the bone below it, causing pain, numbness, weakness in the legs and, in rare cases, loss of bladder or bowel control.

Muscular strains and ligament sprains are other causes of lower back pain in young athletes. These can be from overuse, improper technique or body mechanics, poor flexibility or conditioning and trauma to the lower back. Pain and swelling are common symptoms. Recommended treatment usually involves rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medication for 48 hours. 

Preventing Injuries

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You know how you sometimes think as your child walks by, “She grew 6 inches overnight.” Children often have periods of rapid growth like this. During these times, as bones, muscles and tendons are stretching to accommodate new growth, it is important to limit your child’s training time. They can be more susceptible to injury during periods of rapid growth, and lower back injuries sustained during this time can be more severe or hinder their growth in the future. 

When it is time to train, make sure your child is using good form. Engaging the right muscles to perform a correct pass or serve is important. Rest and proper technique are paramount in avoiding injury. 

The core of your body serves as your center of gravity and main source of strength. This being said, urging your young athletes to strengthen their core will help them be stronger, more efficient athletes. And a strong core will also lead to a lower risk of injury. While you shouldn’t put your 8-year-old on a strict weight lifting regimen, there are other core-building things you can encourage him or her to do – talk to your child’s doctor about exercise recommendations that are right for your child.

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Stretching Helps Reduce Injury Risks

As with adults, proper stretching is imperative to lower the risk of lower back injury in young athletes. Talk with your pediatrician or Family Medicine physician about stretching do’s and don’ts for the muscles in the back as well as the hip flexors and hamstrings, which are also important as they work in conjunction with the lower back. 

Of course, before starting any strength training exercises, talk to your child’s doctor to make sure your child is fit and the routine is safe for them. 


Dr. Kara Carter is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Katy Clinic in Richmond, Texas. She’s a breastfeeding advocate and her clinical interests revolve around preventive care for her patients.


Topics: low back pain, young athletes

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