The most common cause of low back pain in adolescent athletes that can be seen on X-ray is a stress fracture in one of the vertebrae. Technically, this condition is called spondylolysis (spon-dee-low-lye-sis). It usually affects the fifth lumbar vertebra in the lower back and, much less commonly, the fourth lumbar vertebra.
If the stress fracture weakens the bone so much that it is unable to maintain its proper position, the vertebra can start to shift out of place. This condition is called spondylolisthesis (spon-dee-low-lis-thee-sis). If too much slippage occurs, the bones may begin to press on nerves and surgery may be necessary to correct the condition (AAOS, 2015).
There may be a hereditary aspect to spondylolysis. An individual may be born with thin vertebral bone and therefore may be vulnerable to this condition. Significant periods of rapid growth may encourage slippage.
Some sports, such as gymnastics, weight lifting, and football, put a great deal of stress on the bones in the lower back. They also require that the athlete constantly overstretch (hyperextend) the spine. In either case, the result is a stress fracture on one or both sides of the vertebra.
- In many people, spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis are present, but without any obvious symptoms.
- Pain usually spreads across the lower back and may feel like a muscle strain.
- Spondylolisthesis can cause spasms that stiffen the back and tighten the hamstring muscles, resulting in changes to posture and gait. If the slippage is significant, it may begin to compress the nerves and narrow the spinal canal.
Initial treatment for spondylolysis is always nonsurgical. The individual should take a break from the activities until symptoms go away, as they often do. Anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, may help reduce back pain.
Occasionally, a back brace and physical therapy may be recommended. In most cases, activities can be resumed gradually and there will be few complications or recurrences. Stretching and strengthening exercises for the back and abdominal muscles can help prevent future recurrences of pain.
Periodic X-rays will show whether the vertebra is changing position.
Surgery may be needed if slippage progressively worsens or if back pain does not respond to nonsurgical treatment and begins to interfere with activities of daily living. A spinal fusion is performed between the lumbar vertebra and the sacrum. Sometimes, an internal brace of screws and rods is used to hold together the vertebra as the fusion heals.
To reduce your risk of getting spondylolysis:
- Limit participation in certain sports to a reasonable amount. This will help prevent overuse injury.
- Keep the abdominal and back muscles strong and the hamstring muscles supple.
- Use proper equipment for your sport.
- Warm up properly before exercising or playing sports.
- Learn proper techniques for exercise and athletic activities.
- Seek medical care for chronic back pain. Early vertebral stress fractures, particularly in adolescents and young adults, may heal with rest.