World-class Olympic Athletes Struggle with Back Pain

How Do Athletes Deal with Back Pain and Neck Pain?

Gold medalProfessional athletes and Olympians are just like us: susceptible to back pain. (They're also not like us in that they can swim 5 miles in a day, flip through the air, serve a tennis ball at 100+ mph, and throw a shotput farther than a foot.)

How do they get through the pain? What treatments do their coaches and doctors have them try? Is it really smart for them to compete through the pain? Read what leading spine experts have to say about these cases.

2008 Olympians with Back Pain

Name: Andrew Willows
Sport: Flatwater Kayaking
Country: Canada

Spine Problem: Slight disc herniation at L4-L5
Treatments: Ice, Medications
Quote: "I've had a lot of (back) pain lately. I must train through a lot of pain. If it's too bad, I take medication to keep the inflammation down."(1)

Experts' Opinions:
"As we age—athletes and the rest of us—disc bulges are common. Because athletes such as Andrew Willows put more stress on their spine, it can be said that they are more susceptible to disc herniations. However, slight disc herniations, much like a general back ache or a muscle strain, are common and generally respond well to conservative management, such as anti-inflammatory medication."
Dr. Jason Highsmith

"Even slight disc herniations can cause pain if they're pressing on a spinal nerve. The pain usually comes and goes, so it's a good idea to use ice and medication to control the inflammation when necessary. To prevent future painful episodes, Andrew Willows—and any patient with a disc herniation—should work on strengthening the muscles around the spine. Then the muscles will provide better support to the spine.

"As for training through the pain, I do not recommend this. Sometimes a few days' rest will lead to a quicker recovery and stronger comeback: whoever said 'No pain, no gain' never had a disc herniation!"
Nicola V. Hawkinson, RN, RNFA, NP

Name: Melanie Roach
Sport: Weightlifting
Country: USA

Spinal Problem: Severe disc herniation
Treatments: Chiropractic Care (including massage), Microdiscectomy
Quote: "My back is stronger than it has ever been and within seven months, I was 100% and beyond what I was before surgery."(2)

Experts' Opinions:
"Surgery is almost always used as a 'last resort' option. Generally, if the pain isn't relieved after 3-6 months of conservative care, surgery may be recommended. Melanie Roach had a very impressive recovery time, especially given the forces her back must endure. A microdiscectomy is a minimally invasive technique that can shorten recovery time because of its smaller incision and less tissue trauma. Her physical condition prior to surgery also played a favorable role in her rapid recovery."
—Dr. Jason Highsmith

"It's great that Melanie Roach had such an amazing recovery, even if she didn't win a medal at the Olympics. After a microdiscectomy, keeping a strong lumbar spinal musculature is the best way to prevent low back pain, especially in Melanie's line of work."
—Nicola V. Hawkinson, RN, RNFA, NP

Name: Jeannie Longo
Sport: Cycling
Country: France

Spine Problem: Sciatica
Quote: "I haven't had this sciatic problem for months, and two days ago, it flared up. I knew at the start I was in for a painful day, but I was ready for it."(3)

Experts' Opinions:
"The extreme demands of an Olympic event such as a bike race can exacerbate chronic pain and cause a flare-up of acute pain, such as Jeannie Longo experienced. Her ability to push through the pain speaks to her tenacity and physical fitness, in addition to her commitment to competing for her country. However, it should be noted that patients dealing with sciatic pain should always do what's best for them. Pushing through the pain may not be the best option; for some patients rest and anti-inflammatory medications are a better strategy. We can't generalize and say that since Longo biked with sciatic pain, it is all right for others to do the same."
—Dr. Jason Highsmith

"Sciatic pain is often unpredictable. Working through the pain may not be the best choice, but like this athlete, each patient needs to decide what's best for him/her. Rest, using ice/heat, and massage can help alleviate some of the symptoms."
—Nicola V. Hawkinson, RN, RNFA, NP


Updated on: 07/16/15
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Back Pain and Sports
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Back Pain and Sports

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