May 9, 2017, 1:17:36 PM CDT Feb 22, 2023, 4:27:34 PM CST

Spine injury: Children in sports at risk for slipped disks

Spondylolisthesis can be prevented with proper care and treatment for back pain.

young gymnast stretches her back young gymnast stretches her back

Young athletes face their share of bumps and scrapes, but first aid kits aren't the solution to every injury. If your child has recurring lower back pain or spondylolysis, they may be at risk for a slipped disk in the spine.

What is spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolisthesis occurs when a vertebra (small bones in your spine) slips out of place. Spondylolisthesis symptoms may consist of recurring low back pain or stiffness. Severe spondylolisthesis can pinch nerves in the back, causing leg pain, weakness, numbness and nerve injuries.

What causes spondylolisthesis?

Spondylolisthesis is a complication of a stress fracture in the spine called spondylolysis, the most common cause of lower back pain in young athletes. Spondylolysis is caused by repeatedly extending the back too far while twisting or holding weight. It's most common in athletes such as gymnasts or football players.

If left untreated, spondylolysis can weaken the vertebra, making it vulnerable to slip or move out of place, causing spondylolisthesis.

"In children and adolescents, this slippage most commonly occurs during stages of rapid growth," says Christopher Redman, M.D., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine.

How is spondylolisthesis diagnosed?

Your child's physician may order X-rays if your child has back pain that won't go away. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may also reveal back problems related to spondylolisthesis that can help your child's doctor create a personalized treatment plan.

How is spondylolisthesis treated?

"For most patients with spondylolisthesis, back pain and other symptoms will improve with conservative nonsurgical treatment," Dr. Redman says. "Patients who have persistent back pain or severe slippage of a vertebra, however, may need surgery to relieve their symptoms and allow a return to sports and activities."

Nonsurgical treatments for spondylolisthesis might include:

  • Resting from activities that cause back strain
  • Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen
  • Wearing a back brace to hold the disk back in place
  • Participating in physical therapy

During physical therapy, athletes will perform exercises to help reduce pain, increase their flexibility and strengthen their back muscles. Athletes will also have exercises to perform at home, even after symptoms are gone, to help avoid a recurrence of spondylolisthesis.

Young athletes with severe spondylolisthesis may need surgery to put the slipped disk back into place and hold it there as the back heals. Surgery can also relieve any pressure on nerves in the spine. Most athletes won't need surgery, but it is an option if physical therapy alone doesn't improve back pain.

Most children with spondylolisthesis can return to sports after completing treatment and getting their doctor's approval. Typically, athletes will not experience pain related to spondylolisthesis again if they regularly perform their recommended physical therapy exercises.

Learn more

If you are concerned about your child and spondylolisthesis, contact the Children's Health Andrews Institute Spine Center.

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