Sports are an excellent way to stay active, have fun, and enjoy being part of a team. However, if you regularly play sports or are a serious athlete, injury prevention is paramount. Some sports present the risk for spine injuries that could impact your comfort and mobility for life.
Some spinal sports injuries have the potential to cause long-term complications, such as:
Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis
Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis are two different spinal conditions that can occur in athletes. Athletes may develop spondylolisthesis as a complication of spondylolysis.
What is Spondylolysis?
Spondylolysis refers to a stress fracture in a thin section of bone that links facet joints of the lumbar vertebrae, called the pars interarticularis. This injury most commonly occurs as the result of repeated stress on the lower back.
Typically, spondylolysis has just one symptom: back pain. This pain is the most severe when the patient bends backward and tends to worsen with physical activity.
What is Spondylolisthesis?
Spondylolysis weakens the spine, making it more susceptible to spondylolisthesis. Spondylolisthesis occurs when a vertebra slips out of its usual position and lands on the vertebra beneath it.
Although most cases of spondylolysis in athletes don’t lead to spondylolisthesis, it’s a notable risk. Possible symptoms of spondylolisthesis include back pain, trouble standing or walking for extended periods, neurological symptoms, back stiffness, and muscle spasms.
Which Sports Can Cause Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis?
The sports that are the most likely to cause spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis are those that involve frequent and/or repetitive backward bends. Examples of sports that can cause this spinal injury include gymnastics, cheerleading, football, soccer, tennis, volleyball, weightlifting, pole vaulting, diving, and dancing.
How Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis Can Impact Your Long-Term Spinal Health
If spondylolysis develops into spondylolisthesis, it may have long-lasting effects on your spinal health. Severe cases of spondylolisthesis can lead to symptoms including:
- Chronic back pain
- Sciatica (radiating nerve pain)
- Changes to your posture and gate
- Leg weakness
- Impaired bladder function
When pain and other symptoms of spondylolisthesis don’t improve with conservative treatment, surgery may be required. Surgery for spondylolisthesis typically involves realigning and stabilizing the spine with spinal implants and/or fusion.
Within your spine, rubbery, protective discs are located in between each vertebra. These discs absorb impact and cushion your spinal bones.
When repeated pressure is placed on the spine, which is common in athletes, the spinal discs can weaken and become damaged. If a crack develops in the tough exterior of the disc, the jelly-like disc interior may push out through it. This is a common spinal injury called a herniated, slipped, or bulging disc.
Why Are Herniated Discs Common Among Athletes?
In the general population, herniated discs are the most common among the elderly population. This is because the discs dry out and weaken with age. Herniated discs are also common among athletes, but not because of age-related spinal degeneration.
Instead, the repetitive stress and impact that many athletes place on the spine can break down the spinal discs. Due to athletes’ high activity levels, microtraumas in the spinal discs often don’t have an opportunity to heal. This creates a higher risk of herniated discs among athletes.
Which Sports Are The Most Likely To Cause a Herniated Disc?
The sports that are most likely to cause a herniated disc are those that involve significant:
- Axial loading, which refers to force administered from the top of the head through the length of the spine
- Flexion (bending forward) and/or rotation of the lumbar spine
Disc herniated is the most common in high-contact and high-load sports. Examples include football, weightlifting, hockey, basketball, soccer, and bowling.
Possible Long-Term Complications of a Herniated Disc
The main long-term risk of a herniated disc is chronic back pain. However, if a herniated disc is left untreated, it can lead to irreversible nerve damage. Although this is rare, it may compromise your sensation and even your bladder or bowel control.
Cases of a herniated disc that don’t improve after months of non-surgical treatment may require surgery for a complete recovery. Surgery for this spinal condition typically involves discectomy, which is a procedure to remove the damaged spinal disc.
Spinal stenosis develops when the amount of open space in the spine decreases. As the spaces in the spine narrow, spinal nerve compression can start to occur. This may trigger symptoms including chronic back pain and weakness, tingling, or numbness in the extremities.
Why Do Athletes Develop Spinal Stenosis?
In athletes, spinal stenosis tends to be caused by deformities in the structure of the spine caused by scoliosis, herniated disc, and spondylolisthesis. These conditions can reduce the amount of space in the spinal canal, possibly leading to stenosis.
Spinal degeneration is a key factor in the development of spinal stenosis. Athletes put more stress on their spines than the average person. This can lead to faster spinal degeneration and may increase your risk of developing spinal stenosis earlier in life.
Long-Term Complications of Spinal Stenosis
Although most patients make a full recovery from spinal stenosis, it can lead to long-term complications. The condition can become worse and, in severe cases, lead to permanent symptoms including:
- Balance issues
Spinal Stenosis Surgery
Surgery may be recommended in cases of spinal stenosis that cause serious, persistent back pain and don’t improve after months of conservative treatment. Surgery for this spinal condition typically involves decompression with laminectomy to alleviate pressure on the spinal nerves.
Athletes with spinal stenosis that undergo decompressive lumbar laminectomy may require stabilization, which traditionally is achieved with spinal fusion. However, a spinal stenosis surgery implant can stabilize the spine without the extended spine surgery recovery time and other complications associated with fusion.
To prevent lifelong spinal issues, athletes need to focus on injury prevention with proper warm-ups, strengthening exercises, physical therapy, and adequate rest. If you experience back pain or other symptoms of a spinal issue, promptly schedule a medical evaluation to receive a diagnosis and get on the path to recovery.