Here’s How to Manage Back and Neck Pain as an Athlete

Athletes get injured all the time. If you're an athlete with a back or neck injury, here's how to manage your pain.

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how to manage back and neck pain as an athlete

Playing sports and pain tend to go hand in hand. For many who enjoy sporting activities – especially young athletes – missing time away from play can be disheartening. Whether you’re a professional or just enjoy a casual scrimmage, it’s important to be aware of how to prevent and treat injuries and pains. Let’s explore how to manage back and neck pain as an athlete.  

Managing back pain as an athlete

Athletes should be most worried about getting an injury in their lower back (lumbar spine). According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, about 5-10% of all pain in athletes can be attributed to injuries in the lower back. You are most at risk of a back injury and pain if you are involved in:

  • gymnastics
  • diving
  • weight lifting
  • golf
  • football
  • rowing

back pain as an athlete

Common types of injuries include muscle strains, stress fracture, ligament sprains, soft tissue contusions and herniated disc. If you are an athlete who has just suffered a lower back injury, it’s crucial to seek medical advice immediately. Waiting to do so can cause long-term pain.

Your doctor may recommend working with a physical therapist to improve your range of motion as well as your return time to the field. 

Getting a diagnosis

In order to develop a treatment plan that best fits your needs, your doctor will take into consideration your:

  • age
  • sport(s) and level of competition
  • past and current medical problems
  • location of pain and if it has spread
  • when the pain began
  • drug and medication use

In 90% of patients, back pain will go away without medical treatment in as little as 12 weeks. If you are looking to accelerate your healing, however, seeking out a doctor of sports medicine can make sure you are back in the game in no time.

Best treatment options for back pain

Once your doctor gives you a diagnosis, don’t fret. There are a variety of treatment options available to you. You will most likely be given the most conservative treatment option first. Your doctor may slowly introduce more invasive measures if needed. 

The most effective evidence-based treatments include superficial heat, spinal manipulation and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications.

Manage Back and Neck Pain as an Athlete doctor treating athlete's pain

Let’s review the benefits of each:

Superficial heat

There is strong evidence that suggests using superficial heat in the week after injury is effective for managing your pain.

Cold therapy has been the traditional advice for many years. However, there is mounting evidence that heat wrap therapy may be more effective. This includes a 2006 systematic review that compared the two treatments and found evidence to back up heat therapy, but not cold therapy.

Spinal manipulation

A variety of practitioners perform spinal manipulation therapy. They include:

  • chiropractors
  • osteopathic physicians
  • naturopathic physicians
  • physical therapists
  • medical doctors

During this treatment, your health care professional will use a series of moves with her hands or a device to apply force to a specific joint in the back.

Physical therapy, in general, is effective in reducing acute lower back pain. It can target muscular imbalances, especially weaknesses in the abdominal and posterior spinal muscles. 

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) 

Most athletes are very familiar with using NSAIDs to treat pain. This class of drugs includes ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin) naproxen (Aleve), celecoxib (Celebrex), and aspirin. These medications are not ideal for long-term back pain but can help provide short-term pain relief, especially in conjunction with other treatments.

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