Weekend Warriors and Risk of Spinal Injury-Tips on Protecting the Back


Spine Community News: Spring is here...finally! Every year, we welcome the arrival of mild weather and look forward to the weekends, when we can get outside and pick up the golf clubs, the tennis racket, the basketball, the softball glove. And every weekend, thousands of people show up in doctors' offices, clinics, and emergency rooms with injuries.

"When we think of the injuries most common for 'weekend warriors', we think of ankles, knees, elbows and shoulders," says Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD and founder Atlantic Spine Center, "and the ligaments and tendons that connect the bones in those joints are particularly vulnerable to strains and sprains. But injuries to the back and neck are more common than most people think and can cause pain that is often severe."

Most sports activity puts a great deal of stress on the spine. It absorbs pressure, twists, turns, and sometimes bodily impact. Many back injuries are caused by a specific event or trauma; others are caused by repetitive motions that result in micro-traumas to the structures in the back and problems that develop over time. Although the entire spine is subject to stress when playing sports, injuries to the lumber (lower) back are more common. In adults, the majority of back injuries are muscle strains or disc-related, particularly herniated disc.

Discs are shock-absorbing cushions between the vertebrae in the spine. Each disc has a strong, fibrous outer ring and a soft, gel-like center. A herniated disc, also known as a ruptured or slipped disc, occurs when a tear in the tough outer layer of cartilage allows some of the soft inner material to protrude out of the disk. "The discs between vertebrae degenerate as we age," says Dr. Liu. "A herniated disc can result from years of wear and tear or it can be caused by sudden trauma during sports activity, which is most likely to happen to those in middle-age whose discs have already suffered some deterioration and are more prone to tearing."

Dr. Liu says it isn't always possible to prevent injury on the playing field, but there are preventive steps you can take to keep your spine in good condition and minimize the effect of injuries when they occur.

  • Follow general best practices for good health: weight control, regular exercise and not smoking. Get plenty of rest before hitting the playing field. Eat a well-balanced diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and limited amounts of meat and dairy products.
  • Warm up and cool down: Cold muscles are most prone to injury. Begin warming up with light aerobic exercise - 5 to 10 minutes of jogging or jumping jacks at an easy pace - to gradually raise your heart rate and increase blood flow to the muscles. Your warm-up should include dynamic stretching - stretching while moving, which improves power and flexibility of the muscles and ligaments. Cooling down gradually lowers the heart rate and restores fatigued muscles by getting blood and oxygen to them. Cooling down should consist of a gentle jog followed by light static stretching - remaining stationary while holding the stretch for 20-30 seconds.
  • Don't overdo it: Overuse injuries occur when movements are repeated over and over - hitting a tennis serve, for example, or swinging a golf club. Take frequent rests and start slowly at the beginning of the season. Drink plenty of water. And don't play through pain. Continuing to play can make a back injury worse.
  • Use proper form: Proper technique will not only improve your game, it will help you stay healthy. The best way to avoid bad habits is to avoid developing them. Take lessons from a qualified instructor and have periodic refreshers or check-ups to ensure that you aren't slipping.
  • Use protective equipment: Some sports are more likely to cause injury than others, dependent in part on the amount of contact. Protective equipment for the neck and back might include neck rolls and shoulder pads. Wearing supportive shoes with the right amount of cushioning and stability for your sport is also critical in avoiding falls and supporting the spine.

Dr. Liu concludes: "Get out there! Sports are both physically and socially beneficial and - with proper precautions - the more active you are the better. As with most things, moderation is key. Keep your back and your whole body in good condition and you can enjoy a lifetime of your favorite sports."

Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, is a board-certified physician who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery at Atlantic Spine Center.


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