Back Pain in Young Athletes

General Health & Wellness • Oct 29, 2019

Back Pain in Young Athletes: Why It Happens and What to Do

In adults, back pain is a very commonplace complaint.  If you polled the adults at your workplace or at a school event you would probably find that almost everyone has experienced back pain at some point over the last few years.

But what happens when it is your young athlete?  It is the middle of a busy sports season and your son or daughter comes home complaining of back pain.  Surprisingly this complaint is much more common than you may think!  In the adolescent age group, the prevalence of low back pain is between 20-30%.

This number may have you worried about your athlete and wondering if they’re at risk.

Although back pain can happen to any athlete, from the cross-country runner to the hockey player, certain sports definitely have higher levels of back pain in young athletes.  Gymnasts (most common), dancers and cheerleaders are at higher risk because of the amount of arching (bending backwards) that they do.  Football is also high risk because of the compression forces on the spine as well as bending back when tackling.  Tennis players and volleyball players have a surprisingly high amount due to the arch they get in their backs when serving.

Each of these sports discussed above puts a lot of stress on the low back. This can lead to pain and trouble participating.  Although some back injuries happen when a player is hit, tackled or falls, most times back pain comes on gradually and gets worse over time.  Your athlete may complain of a little back pain at first just after practice, but slowly it may start affecting their whole day.

When is it time to worry about back pain in young athletes?

  • More than a month or two of mild to moderate pain
  • Pain worsens or happens all the time (even just sitting at school)
  • Pain wakes your athlete up at night
  • Complaints of numbness, tingling, or weakness
  • Pain in the younger athlete population (under 10 years)

If your child experiences any of these issues related to their back pain, it is probably time to talk with your pediatrician or sports medicine doctor.  They can evaluate your child, get x-rays and decide if more intervention is needed.  A number of different things can cause back pain in kids.  Common causes of back pain in young athletes are muscular pain/strain related to overuse and lack of flexibility. But it can also be something more serious like a low back stress fracture (spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis).

The good news is that most causes of low back pain in the adolescent athlete improve with conservative treatments like rest from the aggravating sport and physical therapy to improve flexibility and core strength.

So, if your young athlete complains of pain, keep track of their symptoms and how it is affecting both their sports and daily life.  If you become concerned, be sure to contact a physician.