Hockey may be considered by some to be a finesse sport, but due to the physical nature of the game a more accurate description is that of a collision sport. While back-related injuries may not be at the top of the list of most common hockey-related injuries, they are considered to be the type of injury that can sideline you the longest if you are not careful.
Common Types of Back Injuries
The number of back-related injuries among professionals has stayed constant over time, but the number of youth players who experience back pain appears to be increasing. A recent trend among athletes is to become specialized in one sport, focusing on it over the course of an entire year in many cases and not exposing your body and muscles to movements associated with other sports. As a result, there is more stress on the body, wear and tear. Whether you are a professional or an athlete just beginning to play varsity hockey, it’s important to be aware of these common injuries:
- Muscle Strains – Lower back muscle strains and sprains are often the most common causes of back pain. They often occur in hockey players due to the mechanical movements of playing the sport, such as bending and twisting, which result in muscle fibers being abnormally stretched or torn causing pain and limits mobility.
- Stress Fracture (spondylolysis) – A stress fracture of one or more vertebrae in the lower back. This injury is often the result of overuse and repetitive activities. They occur when there is a small crack in the bone due to an overload of stress in the area. General pain, pain with movement, swelling, and tenderness in the area are often symptoms of this condition.
- Herniated Disc – Intervertebral discs are rubbery cushions between the segmental bones of the spine (vertebrae) that act as shock absorbers and provide the normal flexibility of the spinal column. When the discs deteriorate, they become prone to bulging and rupture, which can cause a piece of the disc to move out of place and squeeze a spinal nerve. Herniated discs in the low back and neck are the most common, with symptoms including low back or neck pain along with pain radiating into the leg or arm, along with weakness and/or numbness. Symptoms of herniated discs are often developed as you age, and are not nearly as prevalent in youth players as they are in professionals.
When a player is injured it’s always recommended that they receive a full medical evaluation, including an MRI or X-Ray, in order to most accurately diagnose the condition and then determine treatment options. For issues such as mild back pain or muscle strains, surgery is not necessary. Treatment would typically involve physical therapy, rest, and anti-inflammatory medication. You can expect to be off the ice for at least a couple of days, but potentially for an extended amount of time depending on your body’s reaction to the treatment and rate of healing. In more serious cases, such as herniated discs where a surgical process known as a microdiscectomy is required, there is a much lengthier recovery period, which can last anywhere from 10-12 weeks on average. However, you can expect to return to the ice and compete at the same level you were used to prior to the injury.
Whether you are a professional or playing varsity hockey for the first time, there is no guarantee that you will be able to prevent injury. Given the many collisions and hits you are likely to sustain during the course of a game, you can put together a comprehensive conditioning program that can help mitigate risk. In addition, proper coaching, teaching of the fundamentals, and enforcement of the rules of the game can help ensure that you play the game the right way and reduce injury risk.
Dr. Frank Cammisa, Chief Emeritus of the Spine Service at Hospital for Special Surgery, specializes in the surgical treatment of spinal disorders. His areas of expertise include minimally invasive spinal surgery, computer-assisted spinal surgery, microsurgery, athletic spinal injuries and motion-preserving procedures, including artificial disc replacement.