Recognizing the Red Flags of Back Pain in Adolescent Athletes

Posted on 
July 21, 2023

Back pain is common in people of all ages and genders – and especially in young people who play sports.

In fact, back pain is estimated to affect between 37% and 66% of all adolescent athletes. In a recent NCAA poll, one-fourth of all college football players reported a longstanding issue that started before college.

Fortunately, most back pain can be resolved with a proper diagnosis and treatment. To help adolescent and teen athletes recover more quickly and return to their respective sports, Dr. Thurman Alvey, sports medicine specialist at Forté, recommends watching out for the most common red flags of back pain, including:

  • Pain, weakness, numbness or tingling extending down one or both legs, especially if it makes it hard to walk
  • Persistent pain, especially if it lasts two or more weeks
  • Escalating pain, such as going from a two out of 10 on the pain scale to a six out of 10 in a matter of days
  • Pain that prevents an adolescent or teen from getting adequate rest

“Kids are resilient and tough,” says Alvey. “Typically, they can take a little something for pain relief and use a bit of ice, and they’re ready to roll the next day. If that’s not happening – if they can’t sleep at night because of the pain – that should get our attention.”

While these are some of the most common signs and symptoms associated with back pain, athletes can also experience fever, sudden weight loss, and bowel or bladder dysfunction.

The presence of any red flags is your cue to consider taking an athlete out of competition. If you’re on the fence, Alvey recommends conducting a functional movement screening, a set of exercises that helps identify restrictions and issues by testing all major joints and flexibility.

“If the athlete can’t pass a field test, they can’t play,” he says.

While back pain may come and go, it’s important to treat it quickly, whether the goal is to get back in the game or simply back to living a pain-free life.

“Back pain is real,” says Alvey. “Fortunately, most of it isn’t surgical, but it is very common.”

The Forté Fast Orthopedic Care locations are open regularly for walk-in appointments in cases of sports or other sudden injuries that don’t show signs of an immediate emergency. For older injuries, including chronic pain or pain following a previous back injury, call the Forté office at 317.817.1200 to schedule a regular appointment.

These recommendations have been excerpted from Coaches Corner, a free monthly webinar series for coaches, athletic directors and athletic trainers. The series, developed and presented by Forté, in partnership with IHSAA, aims to arm coaching and support teams with helpful information to consider when working with their athletes. Subscribe online so you don’t miss an episode.

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