Neck Pain, Back Pain and Sciatica in Soccer Players: An Introduction

by CoachZ on November 14, 2009

Back Pain and Soccer-Athletes:
A Multi-Part Series on Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation

Significantly, it must be remembered that pain is a symptom and not the ultimate diagnosis. This is especially true when dealing with neck pain, back pain, and sciatica in athletes.

In most instances, the expression of pain, in any of its various manifestations (e.g., acute, dull, aching, chronic, etc.), is not an indication of a structural failure or abnormality. Most back pain and sciatica, particularly lower back pain (or low back pain), is a symptom of a chronic stress injury or of a self-limiting strain or sprain.

Generally, an athlete’s physical condition and high level of fitness level allows the spine of the soccer athlete to handle even the most demanding and extreme movements and tasks without incident or injury. However, back pain, and particularly low back pain, is one of the most common reasons why soccer athletes are lost for a practice, a single competitive event (i.e., game, match, tournament, etc.), or a season.

The type of sport and the competitive level of the athlete is one of the key determinants when it comes prevalence of the condition and whether or not an athlete will play through the pain, whether neck pain, back pain, sciatica or a combination of.

As stated, most athletes are affected by sprains or strains and low back pain is one of the primary reasons for lost training time, playing time, or both.

It was reported in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, the American Journal of Sports Medicine, Clinical Sports Medicine, and The Physician and Sports Medicine that low back pain was responsible for complaints leading to lost playing time in 30% of college football players, 38% of professional tennis players, male and female, and that a striking 90% of professional golfers tour injuries were related to neck pain and back pain, again principally low back pain.

As indicated in the disparity between college football players and professional golfers, low back pain and sciatica, is more common among certain athletes and in certain sports.

Interestingly, wrestlers seem to have the highest overall level of acute low back or lower back pain, reportedly as high as 54%, reported in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. In the same journal, low back pain complaints were lower among soccer athletes and tennis players, at 37% and 32%, respectively. In the American Journal of Sports Medicine it has been reported that 59% of wrestlers experienced chronic low back pain.

Significantly, 23% of weightlifters, as in competitive powerlifters or Olympic weightlifters, expressed lower back pain in 23% of subjects surveyed. However, of competitive rowers, men and women, the numbers are 15% and 25%, respectively. Interestingly, as one might expect, gymnasts appear to be the most likely to report severe and ongoing neck pain, back pain, and sciatica, perhaps a consequence of both the nature of the sport and the average age of the participant.

Keep in mind when reviewing data from these studies that the sample sizes were relatively small.However, the data does seem suggestive and appears to be intuitively consistent with my own observations of competitive athletes, particularly athletes at the higher levels, either top-caliber amateurs or professionals.

For soccer players the numbers are somewhat ambiguous…somewhat!

This is primarily because there has been less research dedicated to understanding soccer-related back pain, at least in the US. The focus in the USA has been primarily focused on children, soccer, and back pain; and, the data seems to point to an issue concerning type and severity of the symptoms. With soccer athletes, particularly children, there seems to be a high degree of sprain and strain, as in most sports and among all age groups, but due to the age of the participants, adolescence, spondylolysis with spondylolisthesis is a common diagnosis causing low back pain, sciatica, and lost playing time, as it appears to be in gymnasts.

For this reason, low back pain complaints in adolescent soccer players should be taken very seriously and a sports medicine physician should be consulted immediately!

In the next article we will explore in greater detail the various conditions associated with neck pain, back pain, and sciatica in soccer athletes, with an emphasis on low back pain. We will attempt to understand etiology (cause), lost playing time and how to avoid it, and treatment, both prevention and rehabilitation…to avoid injury and to get the soccer athlete, in fact any athlete, back to playing shape as quickly as possible.

Coach Z

Professor John P. J. Zajaros, Sr.
216-712-6526
866-835-2913 (toll free)
Skype: johnzajaros1
coachz@ultimatesoccertraining.com

PS, Specific soccer-related questions on all aspects of training, coaching, scholarship availability and how to compete for them, and all other inquiries: Send your questions to my personal email account and I will respond ASAP excellencepaidforward@gmail.com Please, serious questions only!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Jones February 10, 2010 at 5:28 am

A minor soccer injury initial treatment usually involves pain killers and muscle relaxers. This takes the edge off the pain, the body normally is left to repair itself. However if the pain persists a medical professional may be needed to prevent long-term damage.

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Holly Boss, MS, PT September 15, 2011 at 8:25 pm

The most common cases of back pain that I see in high school and middle school athletes in the orthopedic PT practice where I work are caused by this triad: strain/sprain during practice or game, inadequate cooling down/stretching of muscles after engaging in sports activities, and prolonged poor posture. It is rare that I see a coach take his/her team through adequate cool-downs. Instead, the players go straight to their cars and sit for at least 15 minutes during the ride home, letting their back muscles tighten up and putting low-load, long duration stretch on the spinal ligaments. This scenario added to a strain that they may have sustained during practice or game, can only result in a much longer rehabilitation time. The best treatment for low back injuries is prevention.

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