Back Pain in Rowers

Absract & Commentary

Synopsis: Rowers with pre-existing back pain prior to college were more likely to develop back pain in college but less likely to miss practice or end their careers because of it than rowers without pre-existing back pain.

Source: O’Kane JW, et al. Effect of pre-existing back pain on the incidence and severity of back pain in intercollegiate rowers. Am J Sports Med. 2003;31(1):80-82.

College rowers often complain of back pain. it is not known if rowers with a history of back pain before college have more significant back pain during their college rowing careers. This study was set up to determine whether pre-existing back pain is a significant risk factor for back pain in intercollegiate rowers. For those rowers with pre-existing back pain and back pain during college, the study examined if they were able to effectively participate in college rowing.

Surveys were sent to 4680 rowing athletes from 5 strong university programs. A total of 2165 were answered. Survey responders older than 45 years, coxswain, and those without back pain during college were excluded, leaving 1829 surveys for the study. The survey included questions concerning back pain before the rower’s college career, during intercollegiate rowing, number of missed practices, time lost from college rowing because of back pain, and career-ending back pain. The definition for back pain was pain lasting longer than 1 week.

Athletes with pre-existing back pain (57.1%) developed back pain during their college-rowing career more often than athletes without pre-existing back pain (36.6%). In the athletes with pre-existing pain, 55% missed practice and 8% ended their college rowing careers because of back pain. A total of 78.8% missed less than 1 week, and 5.9% missed more than 1 month. In athletes without pre-existing back pain, 62% missed practice and 17% ended their college rowing careers because of back pain. A total of 61.9% missed less than 1 week, and 18.1% missed more than 1 month. O’Kane and associates concluded that rowers with pre-existing back pain are more likely to have back pain in college but are less likely to miss extended periods of practice time or end their college rowing careers because of back pain.

Comment by James R. Slauterbeck, MD

Often a pre-existing injury may dissuade a coach from taking an athlete into the program. For many injuries, like pre-existing ACL injury, one might hold off on scholarship choice until successful treatment. Additionally, an athlete with a pre-existing injury may ask a physician, coach, or himself if the athlete can effectively participate in sports at a higher level. Many rowers have back pain, and it is not known if pre-existing back pain is associated with inability to participate in their sport.

This data appear to support the idea that rowers with pre-existing back pain have a higher incidence of back pain in college but miss less time than their peers who do not have pre-existing pain. This suggests that those with back pain have learned how to cope with their pain and continue to perform.

The data collected from this study carry the bias of all retrospective surveys in that information obtained was based on recollection. Additionally, only approximately 50% of the surveys were answered, presenting a significant selection bias. However, this study provides O’Kane et al a base of which to begin a prospective study to better answer these questions. Additionally, with a scarcity of information on this topic, we now have some information to begin to discuss with rowers with back pain.

Dr. Slauterbeck is Associate Professor, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Albuquerque, NM