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Watch Your Back When Playing Sports

By Heather Maloney
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Staff

Sports like football, which involve direct contact, make damage to the cervical spine (neck) more likelyWe all know that exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and for many, a game of basketball or playing in a softball league is preferred over sweating it out at the gym. With a little extra TLC, sports are still an option for those with back pain, and for others, knowing the type of strain sports place on the back may help prevent a back injury.

"Spinal injuries account for two to three percent of all athletic injuries," says Dr. Michael Groff, co-director of the  Spine Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "People are starting to realize that education is important."

Sports that involve repetitive impact, such as running, often cause damage to the lumbar spine (the lower back). Sports like football, which involve direct contact, make damage to the cervical spine (neck) more likely. The thoracic spine, which is the mid-portion of the spine, is less likely to be injured during sports because the rib cage makes it relatively immobile.

And where are you most likely to hurt your back? You guessed it: the football field. "In absolute numbers, football injuries are most common because so many more people play it," says Dr. Groff. "You tend to see stinger injuries, transient weakness, and pain in the arms."

In fact,  stinger injuries are common in contact sports. Stinger injuries affect the nerve supply of the arm at either the neck or shoulder. Symptoms often include a burning or electric-shock sensation, and the arm may immediately feel numb following the injury. In most cases, stingers are temporary and resolve on their own.

But how do you know if it's something minor, like a stinger, or something more serious? "If you have normal aches and pains, those will get better on their own," says Dr. Groff. "But if the incident is associated with weakness, you need to immobilize the neck and get help immediately."

Many believe the most important step is to minimize the risk of injury in the first place.

Dr. Groff points out that working with football players to emphasize the proper tackling technique, for instance, has been effective in reducing cervical spine fractures.

Stretching  and a thorough warm-up can also help athletes reduce the risk of injury, and trainers and coaches need to be trained to recognize injuries and take the appropriate precautions.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted March 2011

Contact Information

Spine Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Shapiro Clinical Center, Second Floor
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215