Can Weightlifting Damage Your Back?

Lifting weights is one of the best ways to strengthen the body and increase muscle mass. As weightlifters get stronger, so does the temptation to increase weight. Studies show the risk of weightlifting is relatively low compared to other sports. However, frequent lifters with poor form, a lack of warmup, and weights that are too heavy are more likely to develop back injuries. If symptoms are not addressed, weightlifting injuries can cause long-term damage to the back and spine. Here are 3 back injuries, along with possible treatment options.

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1. Muscle sprains and strains

The back contains a series of muscles designed to support the shoulders, spine, and torso. Within the back are also several tendons and ligaments prone to damage due to weightlifting. A back strain occurs when one of the muscles or tendons in the back is stretched or torn. Back sprains occur when ligaments experience the same injury. Both injuries can cause cramping, severe pain with specific movements, difficulty bending, and muscle weakness.

2. Herniated discs

The spinal cord is the body’s information highway, sending nerve signals throughout every inch. Protecting the spinal cord are bones, like vertebrae and facet joints. Between each pair of vertebrae is a strong disc. These discs act like shock absorbers while providing added support and flexibility. Excess weightlifting can cause a disc to shift out of place. In addition, a herniated disc can press on nearby nerves causing numbness, weakness, and pain with specific movements. Sciatica, an uncomfortable nerve pain in the leg, can also occur. A herniated disc can happen anywhere along the spine but is most common in the lower back, which supports the most weight.

3. Look out for lumbar stress fractures

Repeated stress on the back due to weightlifting can cause cracks in the vertebrae. These stress fractures are prevalent in young weightlifters whose bodies are still developing. Tiny cracks develop in weak points of the vertebra of the lumbar spine. Sometimes, the fractured vertebra shifts out of place, affecting nearby bones and nerves, called spondylolisthesis. Common symptoms of both injuries include back pain and stiffness that worsens with activity. Some people also notice pain in the buttocks and legs. Lumbar stress fractures can lead to weakness and limited mobility if left untreated.

Back pain treatment

Regardless of the injury, seek medical help for pain and stiffness, especially when weightlifting is part of an exercise routine. A doctor or orthopedic surgeon will assess the damage, often using imaging techniques, to make a diagnosis. In all 3 cases, non-surgical treatment can help reduce pain and facilitate recovery. First-line treatment options include rest, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), bracing, and applying heat to the area. Physical therapy (PT) can also help strengthen the surrounding muscles and improve mobility. Surgery is the next option if non-surgical treatments fail to bring relief, usually after several weeks or months.

Surgery and weightlifting future

Sprains and strains typically do not require surgery. However, repeated sprains and strains can lead to more severe injuries requiring a trip to the operating room. Herniated discs can benefit from microdiscectomy, artificial disc, or spinal fusion, while stress fractures can be treated with bone graft surgery or spinal fusion. Many of these procedures can be done using minimally invasive techniques. As a result, patients will have smaller incisions, faster recovery, and higher success rates. After surgery, doctors encourage weightlifters to keep exercising to strengthen the body. However, modifying certain practices to avoid repetitive injuries is important.

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