Management of back pain in athletes

Sports Med. 1996 Apr;21(4):313-20. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199621040-00006.


Back pain affects millions of people. It affects 80% of the population and up to 52% at any given time. Back pain is not limited to sedentary individuals; it has significant effects on athletes as well. Depending upon the sport, incidence rates of back pain occur in athletes from 1.1% to as high as 30%. Athletes differ from the non-athletic population in that their incentives to return to activity are considerably different than non-athletes. The reasons may vary from the will to win through to significant financial considerations. Although reasons for recovery are different, the physiology and mechanics of repair of injured soft tissue in the athlete is the same as for the non-athlete. Proper management of the athlete requires ruling out emergent causes of back pain such as tumour, infection, acute fracture, progressive neurological deficit, visceral sources (e.g. pancreatitis, abdominal aortic aneurysm), and rheumatoid variants. Once a good history and physical is performed, a simple classification system can be utilised to manage the athlete presenting with back pain. This system can be expressed as: (a) regional back pain; (b) radicular leg pain; (c) radicular leg pain with progressive neurological deficit; and (d) cauda equina syndrome. Each of these categories needs to be managed in a specific manner and can provide the healthcare professional with simple, straightforward guidelines for handling the athlete with lower back pain. The key is to return the athlete to the field of play in a safe and timely manner.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Athletic Injuries / classification
  • Athletic Injuries / therapy*
  • Back Pain / classification
  • Back Pain / therapy*
  • Humans