Why Do Athletes Suffer Back Spasms?

A helmet and a football on a field.
Choose the health content that's right for you, and get it delivered right in your inbox

Back spasms are among the most commonly experienced injuries in nearly every professional sport – be it golf, tennis, basketball, football, baseball or even hockey. Pros who’ve recently lost playing time due to back spasms include football stars Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Forty Niners’ wide receiver Torrey Smith, plus NBA players Jared Sullinger and David Lee of the Boston Celtics, Devin Harris of the Mavericks, Derrick Favors of the Utah Jazz, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green from the Golden State Warriors and Lou Amundson of the New York Knicks. Other sports stars to have been sidelined by spasms in the past year include golfer Tiger Woods, MLB pitchers Glen Perkins and Jason Grilli, and tennis greats Milos Raonic and Roger Federer.

In this blogspace, we’ve talked a lot about how sedentary habits, lack of exercise, being overweight and using improper technique in sports puts you at risk for all kinds of back injuries. But pro athletes are by definition some of the most physically fit people on earth. They exercise regularly, have the benefit of professional trainers, and are the best they can possibly be in their individual sports. So why are they so susceptible to back spasms? And can these injuries be prevented? Here are the facts.

A back spasm is a sudden, involuntary contraction of a muscle that supports the spine, usually in the lumbar region.

A spasm can occur intermittently for a few seconds at a time, or as a prolonged tensing (or “cramping”) of the muscle that lasts several minutes, and may recur repeatedly following the activity that sparked it. It is typically very painful and may cause temporary immobility. Typically, it is a result of excessive stress on the supporting structures of the lower back that’s caused by quick or repeated twisting movement – precisely the kind of action that’s required when swinging a club, passing a basketball, launching a serve or catching a football on the run. A muscle spasm can also cause increased stress on surrounding structures, which in turn can spur pain that radiates beyond the immediate location of the spasm.

See our past blog posts on how to avoid common back injuries in tennis, football, hockey, cycling andbowling.

The extreme muscle exertion, repetitive rotations and excessive flexion of the spine that characterizes pro play all increase the likelihood of back spasms in high-level athletes.

Back spasms primarily occur following the prolonged use and/or hyper-flexion of muscles in the lower back that’s required of pro athletes when they are training and competing. Sudden changes to an athlete’s training schedule, dehydration, herniated disks and hard hits during contact sports all add to the potential for back spasms.

Athletes who concentrate on a single sport may also be more at risk for back spasms due to certain muscle groups becoming more developed than others.

An imbalance in the core muscles that support the spine can contribute to athletic injuries including back spasms. For example, athletes who target their abdominal muscles in the gym may wind up with extremely toned abs that actually put strain on less-developed muscles in the lower back, contributing to their risk of injury. Isolated back spasms that occur without any accompanying general back pain may be an indicator of muscle imbalance.

Here’s an exercise that’s specifically designed to strengthen your core muscles and spine.

Treatment for back spasms is usually via nonsurgical methods, allowing an athlete to get back on the field, court or course as quickly as possible.

Immediate treatment for a back spasm involves stopping whatever sports activity the athlete was engaging in when the spasm occurred and gently stretching the affected muscles, followed by ice and/or heat therapy and anti-inflammatory medications. Patients with chronic back spasms may benefit from targeted physical therapy and message therapy. As with other minor back injuries such as sprains and strains, it’s important to avoid high-impact exercises while the muscles are recovering and to engage in targeted stretching exercises to strengthen the core muscles and reduce the chance of subsequent injury. Read more about what to do when a sudden back spasm, strain or sprain occurs here, and find out how and when an athlete can return to his/her normal exercise routine here.

To reduce the incidence of back spasms, pro athletes and others should be sure they:

  • Stay hydrated before, during and after practices, workouts and games.
  • Employ targeted stretching exercises to strengthen core muscles and avoid muscle imbalance.
  • Consult a spine specialist like Dr. Chetan Patel for back pain and/or spasms that continue two weeks or more after an injury.
  • Avoid sudden, major changes to their workout routine.
  • Always warm up with proper stretching exercises before and after games.
  • Be careful not to overtax muscles when working out in the weight room.
  • Stop and seek treatment immediately following a back injury, rather than “playing through the pain.”
  • Consult a coach or personal trainer to ensure they are using the best body mechanics.
  • Be sure to practice proper posture when sitting down after physical activity.

Get great tips for avoiding preventable back pain in our illustrated guidebook here.

The bottom line is that pro athletes experience back spasms with such frequency largely because their jobs require them to repeatedly and strenuously overuse certain muscles.

Excessive muscle exertion without proper time for recovery is simply a part of the game for those who play sports like basketball, hockey, golf or football for a living – and that’s what causes back spasms. The irony, of course, is that back spasms are also a common hazard for someone who works at a desk all day using chronically poor posture that puts continual, excessive strain on muscles in the lumbar region. In other words, back spasms are one thing that the finest and fittest athletes have in common with the most sedentary desk jockeys!

Though common in athletes, back spasms are a treatable condition whose repeated occurrence should not be ignored. If you or a loved one has experienced chronic back spasms or other persistent back pain, talk to the multidisciplinary medical team at the Spine Health Institute in Altamonte Springs, Fla. Led by world-renowned orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Chetan Patel, they can thoroughly evaluate your condition and offer a variety of non-invasive treatment options. Call Call407-303-5452 to talk to our Patient Care Coordinator, or click on the “Book Online” button at the top of this page.


Understanding & Treating Lower Back Spasms (1/26/2015). Retrieved from Healthline.com: http://www.healthline.com/health/back-pain/lower-back-spasms#BackSpasmBasics1

How to Stop a Back Spasm (10/21/2013). Retrieved from LiveStrong.com: http://www.livestrong.com/article/34496-stop-back-spasm/

Sports Injuries – Back Spasms (12/15/2000). Retrieved from ESPN Training Room: http://espn.go.com/trainingroom/s/1999/1215/235231.html

Lower Back Spasms (n.d.). Retrieved from SportsInjuryBulletin.com: http://www.sportsinjurybulletin.com/archive/1090-lower-back-spams.htm#

Recent Blogs

Two surgeons wearing masks in the operating room
Patient Testimonial: Tammy Fowler Finds Relief After Spine Surgery
healthy food on a table
Healthy Holiday Nutrition Tips
Lung Cancer Screening Coverage Expanded Through Medicare
4 Benefits of Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery
Making Heart-Healthy Cooking Fun
View More Articles