The not-so-good performance by the British contingent at the Wimbledon championships may be linked to a recent study made by researchers from the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital which suggested that high-level tennis can be detrimental to the spine of young people. The team scanned the spines of 33 elite adolescent tennis players, male and female, who trained at the National Tennis Centre, the club where you can find Britain’s most promising young tennis players. Though none of the youths have reported back pain, their backs, however, told a different story.
Serious spinal abnormalities were found to afflict 28 players, a high 85%, ranging from cysts to fractures. Twenty three had an early stage of joint disease, while 13 were found to have herniated discs or desiccated, shriveled discs, a condition usually common in septuagenarians but much less prevalent in teenagers. According to the authors of the study, tennis requires more frequent, repetitive, and rapid rotation from the lumbar spine than most other sports. Playing it during a period of “growth spurt” is particularly detrimental.
Various studies, on the other hand, revealed that back problems don’t afflict just teenage tennis players. At least 1/3 of all competitive football players will hurt their lower backs during play and may experience lower back pain, as will a third of gymnasts and 25% of serious rowers. About 40% of divers are likely to develop a spinal stress fracture, and many cyclists will experience constant, grinding back pain while riding. Severe lower back problems were reported by another study in 6 out of 7 twirling-ribbon rhythmic gymnasts. Topping the list of sports that can cause problems in the lower back and neck is golf with 90% injuries to professional golfers, and almost 80% missing at least one professional tournament because of back pain.
Experts believe that in order to protect and build a better back, one needs to have a solid core. “It’s not just the abdominal area, as many people think,” says Vijay Vad, a sports medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and a back-care adviser to the PGA Tour and the professional men’s tennis circuit. Vad said that, “…to really include all of the elements that move and stabilize the spine, you have to go from your knees to your nipples. That’s the core.”
The core muscle system is made up of the muscles, ligaments and tendons which provide rigging for the spine. The big muscles in front of the spine, as well as those at the sides are specifically important in stabilizing the back. These are the rectus, transverse and oblique abdominals. Same with the less familiar intertransversi, interspinalis and multifidus muscles, which connect to the larger abdominal group but are usually ignored in magazine articles about washboard abs. Both muscle groups must be strong and supple in order to keep the spine stable.
The most crucial element of core health is endurance since it keeps the stabilizing muscles and connective tissues going through a long workout or game. “You have to have enough muscular endurance to be able to maintain spinal stability throughout the entire length of an activity,” says Michael Higgins, the director of athletic-training education at Towson University in Maryland and the author of several prominent academic articles about back injuries in athletes. “Without endurance, what you often see is that near the end of a game, the muscles can’t quite control the movement of the spine adequately anymore, ” he said. No matter what sports you’re into, if your core can’t keep up, your back is sure to suffer the consequence.
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