Team USA is sweeping up gold, silver and bronze medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, with over 80 total medals thus far. Some of the most memorable moments of the games have been scored by our amazing gymnasts as they’ve jumped, flipped, swung and tumbled their way to the podium.
While the professionalism and athleticism of individual competitors have astounded us all (we’re looking at you, Simone), there can be no question that gymnastics as a whole requires a level of fitness, muscle strength and full-body control that doesn’t compare to most other sports. And given the intensity with which they train and the high degree of difficulty associated with the moves they perform, it’s perhaps no surprise that even the fittest gymnasts are subject to a wide variety of back injuries.
Pulled, Torn or Strained Muscles
Gymnasts train to extend and strengthen their muscles at a young age so they can improve their flexibility and protect their joints and bones. Sometimes, a muscle can be overworked or pulled due to a wrong step or overexertion that can cause it to tear or pull and result in intense pain, aches and inflammation. Though these injuries can occur anywhere on the back, they usually happen in the lower (lumbar) region in gymnasts due to frequent back bends and flips.
Rest, hot and cold therapy, stretching and anti-inflammatory medicine are common forms of treatment for injured muscles. Luckily, professional gymnasts have a team of coaches, therapists and doctors who can help treat common muscle injuries and teach proper preventative techniques. For those who don’t have a personal team of health professionals on speed dial, you can click here to visit our Back to Basics video library for proper bending, lifting and twisting techniques.
Spondylolysis and Spondylolisthesis
Spondylolysis can develop in part of the vertebrae due to a congenital defect, trauma or stress fracture, whereas spondylolisthesis is the slippage of one vertebrae over another vertebrae. In gymnastics, spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis usually occur in the lower back due to frequent hyperextension and rotation of the spine. The conditions can appear separately or together, and a gymnast who experiences one of the two won’t necessarily develop the other.
Treatment for spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis usually requires a change in athletic routine and workout methods to avoid further injury. Rest, hot and cold therapy, physical therapy and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine may be used to help reduce the athlete’s pain and inflammation so he or she can heal and continue training.
Some of the most popular gymnastic events include the floor routine, balance beam, uneven bars and vault. Each of these events involves some sort of jump, flip and solid landing when a gymnast hits the floor – and they hit the floor hard. All of this twisting, bending and added pressure to the spine can result in a herniated disk, most commonly experienced in the lower back. If the disk herniation presses on the nerves, it can cause pain, tingling and numbness that can hinder the gymnast and their training. This persistent wear and tear on the spine can also lead to degenerative disk disease further down the road if proper spinal care and preventative measures are not followed.
Herniated disks vary in severity and some disks may not require any intervention. If the herniation is more severe and begins causing pain and other side effects, then treatment such as pain medicine, heat therapy, stretching, physical therapy and surgery may be required to control the pain and prevent any damage.
So You May Not Be A Gymnast, But …
As with any activity or sport, it is important to listen to your body and take a break when needed. Though gymnasts are at a high risk of injury, they are trained to know when to back off and when to push themselves a little further without hurting their spine. Gymnasts make flying through the air look easy, but it is important to remember that athletes aren’t immune to accidents and injuries - J.J. Watts and Tiger Woods are great examples of this.
Conditions like a pulled muscle, spondylolisthesis, spondylolysis and herniated disks can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of a person’s level of athleticism. However, the risk of experiencing these problems can be lessened by regular exercise, stretching, maintaining a healthy weight and diet, and using proper bending, lifting and twisting techniques. Most injuries can be successfully healed with conservative treatments and lifestyle adjustments – surgery is only required in more severe circumstances where less-invasive options have failed to provide relief.
While most of us have no intention of stepping up to the mat and doing back flips anytime soon, all of these preventative techniques and treatments can be adopted into a healthy lifestyle that protects and strengthens your back for years to come. And when unexpected injuries occur, we encourage you to give our office a call so we can help you “stick it” to your back pain for good!
If you suffer from chronic back or neck pain that may be associated with a herniated disk or other type of injury, contact us at Call407-303-5452 to book an appointment. Led by world renowned spine surgeon Chetan Patel, MD, we provide the full range of care including non-invasive, minimally invasive and advanced surgical treatments, with a focus on trying the most conservative options first. For your convenience, you can also click on the “Book Online” button at the top of this page to request an appointment with Dr. Patel or one of his medical team members.
Return to gymnastics after a gymnast has a stress fracture in their back: Spondy (June 6, 2010). Retrieved from Flogymnastics.com: http://www.flogymnastics.com/article/37305-return-to-gymnastics-after-a-gymnast-has-a-stress-fracture-in-their-back-spondy
Back pain in a gymnast (July 8, 2011). Retrieved from Usagym.org: https://usagym.org/docs/Education/library/2011_july_8.pdf
Gymnastic injury prevention (2011). Retrieved from American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons AAOS.org.: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00184
Spine injuries in the sport of gymnastics (2009). Retrieved from NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19142076