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Football Season Brings Increased Risk of Back Injuries

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Herniated Disks Among the Most Common Spinal Problems

Are you ready for some football?

‘Tis the season for first downs, field goals, touchdowns and tailgates – but there’s a down side to this great game as well. As a high-impact sport where big hits are…well, a BIG HIT, it’s understandable that player injuries are a fact of life on the gridiron. And although spinal trauma may run a distant fourth to knee, leg and shoulder injuries in terms of on-field frequency, back pain is surely a common denominator at every level of the game.

You don’t have to be a pro athlete to suffer serious back pain – or to get help addressing it. If you or your weekend warrior are experiencing chronic discomfort, contact the Spine Health Institute today using the “Book Online” button at the top right of this page. Dr. Chetan Patel and his multidisciplinary medical team can provide expert evaluation and conservative to advanced treatments for a wide variety of spinal conditions.

Thankfully, most back injuries in football are soft tissue injuries (i.e., simple strains and sprains) that, while painful and potentially debilitating, will heal on their own over time. But a more serious and surprisingly common football-related injury is the herniated vertebral disk, and this problem has taken plenty of top-level athletes out of action. In fact, Tony Romo, James Harrison, Arian Foster, Rob Gronkowski and a host of lesser known players have all lost field time to herniated disks in recent years, and Green Bay Packers safety Sean Richardson is the latest player to be sidelined with this injury after sustaining a herniated disk in his neck for the second time in his career.

Read on to learn how herniated disks occur, which players are most susceptible, what treatments are available, and strategies for avoiding preventable injuries.

What is a herniated disk?

Sometimes referred to as a “slipped” or “ruptured” disk, this condition occurs when the soft, inner core material (nucleus pulposus) of a disk that separates two vertebrae bulges out through the tougher, outer ring (called the anulus fibrosus) due to trauma, age or related factors. This bulge can put pressure on a spinal nerve, causing irritation and inflammation of both the nerve and surrounding structures. This may trigger a sharp, radiating pain down into the buttocks and one or both legs in a condition commonly referred to as sciatica. It may also spur a tingling or burning sensation as well as numbness or weakness in the arms, legs and buttocks; in severe cases, it may even affect bladder or bowel control.

Though a herniated disk can occur anywhere along the spine, the most frequent location is the lumbar, or lower region, in a condition often referred to as “lumbago.” Read more about herniated disks here.

Who is most likely to suffer a herniated disk?

In football, herniated disks can develop as a result of repeated, hard impacts with the ground, heavy hits, recurring back strains, and sudden or violent twisting actions. Though any player may be affected, the pivoting and twisting movements required of running backs may make them somewhat more susceptible to experiencing a slipped disk. Similarly, linemen may be more at risk for herniated disks due to the repeated tackles they absorb. This is particularly true of players who don’t practice proper technique or have a muscle imbalance.

That said, herniated disks also occur in non-athletes as a result of the aging process. Contributing factors may include being overweight, being a smoker, having a family history of herniated disks or repeatedly engaging in strenuous lifting as part of your job or lifestyle.

How is a herniated disk treated?

Treatment options for herniated disks run the gamut from noninvasive measures – a short rest period, anti-inflammatory medications, hot and cold packs, massage, core strengthening exercises and physical therapy – to epidural injections, and less often, surgical intervention in the form of a microdiscectomy. This latter option, which is followed with physical rehabilitation, is a minimally invasive spinal decompression procedure where a portion of the disk is removed to eliminate pressure on the nerve root.

Typically, lumbar and cervical herniated disks can be effectively treated via non-surgical means, allowing players to get back on the field before long. But when significant pain persists following conservative treatments, a microdiscectomy may be considered.

How can football players reduce the risk of a spinal injury?

While not all disk herniations are avoidable, both professional and amateur players can lessen the likelihood of sustaining a spinal injury such as this with a few proactive measures. These include receiving a comprehensive wellness evaluation prior to the season’s start; performing appropriate warmup exercises prior to play (and cool-down stretches following each game or practice); practicing strength training and stretching as part of every workout; and being sure to stay well hydrated at all times.

It also helps to stay active in between football seasons to keep your muscles strong and flexible – and of course, wearing the right protective padding makes a difference. Just as important is the need to learn proper on-field techniques, like keeping your head up when tackling and never leading with your helmet. Certified athletic trainers are a great source of information on injury prevention and rehabilitation, so seek them out when needed – and when you do experience an injury, don’t wait to seek medical attention.

If debilitating back pain is keeping you off the field, it’s worth your while to consult with a spine specialist like Dr. Patel, who can assess your current condition and create an individualized treatment plan for you that emphasizes the most conservative options first. Call to make an appointment at Call407-303-5452, or click on the Book Online button at the top right of this page.


Common Back Injuries from Playing Football (2/17/2013). Retrieved from

Common Athletic Injuries: Bulging/Herniated Disks (n.d.). Retrieved from Richard Stockton College Athletic Training:

Preventing Football Injuries (n.d.). Retrieved from

The 8 Most Common Football Injuries (6/17/2013). Retrieved from

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