Dealing with the pain of a pinched nerve can be extremely difficult. Nerve compression can cause symptoms like muscle weakness, tingling, numbness and burning pain both locally and even in other areas of the body. Many different factors can cause nerve compression, and the repetitive motions and potential for high impact injuries that occur in many athletic activities can be among them.
A pinched nerve from sports can happen anywhere, but the symptoms can be especially debilitating and chronic if they occur in the neck or back. The spine is home to a large amount of tightly packed nerves, making it a very common source of compression from the type of injuries that often happen in various sports.
Overview of spinal nerve compression
The spine is made up of a stack of tubular bones called vertebrae that serve to both support the head and torso and also protect the spinal cord as it travels from the brain out to the body. These vertebrae are cushioned by rubbery discs and connected by joints that allow the spine to bend and flex. Because the nerves that run through and out of the spinal column are already so tightly packed, even the slightest injury or displacement of these parts can cause nerve compression that results in painful symptoms.
Damaged discs are one of the most common causes of a pinched nerve in the neck or back and can happen from things like age-related degeneration or from a sports-related injury. Increased pressure on the spine can cause these discs to bulge out from between the vertebrae.
This bulging can weaken the already damaged disc lining to the point where it tears and causes inner disc fluid to leak out, resulting in a condition called a herniated disc. If any part of a bulging or herniated disc comes into contact with the spinal cord or exiting nerve roots, a pinched nerve results.
How a sports-related injury can cause a pinched nerve in the spine
Discs and other parts of the spine break down on their own from everyday activities and the aging process. The repetitive bending and twisting required during many sports, not to mention risk of catastrophic injury, can speed along the development of nerve compression, as well. In many cases, sports injuries are not the original cause of these conditions, but can instead aggravate spinal deterioration that is already there.
However, sometimes a nerve can be pinched by a fracture caused by repetitive motion or high impact activities. In rarer cases with younger athletes, a high impact injury could be the direct cause of a disc injury that results in a pinched nerve.
Which sports cause pinched nerves?
While a full contact sport like football may be the first that comes to mind when you think of sports injuries, the truth is that you can get a pinched nerve from any sport. Any activity that requires repetitive twisting of the upper body, like baseball, golf or tennis can put you at risk for speeding up the development nerve compression.
Endurance sports like running are also risky because of the tremendous amount of downward force it places on the joints. Basketball can cause neck or back issues, as well as the more obvious knee problems that are more likely to sideline players.
The best way to prevent your favorite sport from causing or worsening nerve compression is by following some simple guidelines:
- Always follow a proper stretching and warm up routine for your sport
- Make sure to get enough rest and recovery during and after a workout or practice
- Use the proper techniques of your sport to lessen the strain it places on your spine
- Engage in a program of strength training to ensure that you have strong supporting muscles
- Have good nutrition and cardiovascular health to prevent fatigue
A qualified coach, personal trainer or doctor should be consulted on the best way to follow these practices.
How to treat a pinched nerve from sports
If you find yourself sidelined because of a pinched nerve from sports, diagnosis and treatment should always begin with your primary care doctor. After a physical exam and diagnostic imagery have determined the underlying cause, the first round of treatment usually consists of a combination of conservative therapies like rest, over-the-counter medication and hot\cold compresses.
This kind of treatment is usually successful in bringing symptom relief and an eventual return to normal activity. If you are an athlete, it is extremely important that your doctor clears you for return to your specific sport before resuming practice. In some cases, you may be referred to a specialist like a physiatrist or a sports doctor for clearance.
Unfortunately, there are still patients who are unable to find relief, even after weeks or months of treatment, and must then consider back surgery. Traditional open back surgery is a difficult decision for an athlete to make because, while it does offer the chance of complete recovery, it may also possibly leave you worse off than before.
If you are considering surgery for a pinched nerve from sports, you might be glad to know that many spine surgeons are now performing more minimally invasive procedures. The aim of minimally invasive spine surgery is to decompress pinched nerves while using smaller incisions that reduce recovery time and allow patients to resume normal activity much faster than with traditional surgery. Ask your primary care physician if this kind of procedure may be your best option.