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Will Sports Make My Back Pain Or Sciatica Worse?

Patients are often anxious to get back to the sports that they love and regularly ask whether they can do so with back or sciatica pain. As is so often the case, the answer is that it varies widely from patient to patient. Determining whether it’s a good idea to return to sports depends on a number of things including the type of back pain you have, the severity of that pain, your overall fitness level, your mental state, your commitment to recovery and the sport that you want to play. 

That said, there are a few things that all patients can keep in mind to help guide them as they consider returning to sports with back or sciatica pain.

Prior to Returning to Sports

Before returning to sports with back or sciatica pain, there are a few milestones to hit. 

As a baseline, it’s important that:

  •  You have resumed all regular activities (walking up and down stairs, bending over)
  • Your pain is minimal and tolerable (sharp movements aren’t painful)
  • You have been cleared by your physical therapist and doctor to participate in sports
  • You’re mentally ready to return (if you’re anxious or fearful, it might be too soon)

If you meet all of these requirements, it might be time to start working with your physical therapist to plan your return to sports. Working with your PT, you’ll want to ensure that you’ve regained any strength that you lost and that you build up the necessary core strength to support and protect your spine. This is an important step to ensure that you don’t damage your back more. Further, it’s a good idea to work with your PT to set a final goal for your return to athletics and to break that down into smaller steps. This will help to make your return gradual, safe and successful.

As you consider returning to athletics, it’s important to keep in mind that some sports will put more strain on your back than others and it might take longer to return to those activities. Sports or exercises that jar your spine can be particularly difficult for people with sciatica, and for many, these are activities to avoid with sciatica as they can exacerbate sciatica symptoms and cause pain down the sciatic nerve.

Things to Keep in Mind as you Return to Sports

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you should return to sports gradually. For example, if you’ve been cleared to return to athletics, this doesn’t mean that you start with a game. Instead, start with some training, reintroducing key movements and building up endurance. Start slowly with low intensity and gradually increase both intensity and force.

Equally important is letting pain be your guide. If you experience anything beyond mild pain, you should stop. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to return to a particular activity, but it means that you should work more with your doctor and physical therapist before returning.  

Some Exercise and Movement is Important

Just as it’s important to not return to sports too quickly, it’s also important to stay active. Even for those concerned about returning to sports, there are some back and sciatica exercises that can actually provide back pain relief or sciatica relief. As a result, it’s important to talk with your physical therapist about what activities you should be consistently doing.

Determining whether sports will cause increased back or sciatica pain varies on a case-by-case basis. The best advice for patients returning to athletics of any level is to work with their physical therapist and doctor, take things slowly and let pain be their guide. 

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