Rehabilitation of a young athlete with extension-based low back pain addressing motor-control impairments and central sensitization

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Objective: To describe the conservative management of a young athlete with extension-based (EB) low back pain (LBP). Background: We present the case of a 15-year-old female high school gymnast with a 4-year history of EB LBP. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed a healed spondylolysis and significant atrophy with fatty infiltrate of the lumbar multifidi muscles (LMM). She had several courses of outpatient orthopaedic rehabilitation that focused on core muscle strengthening (improving activation and strength of the LMM and transversus abdominus muscle in a neutral pelvic position) without long-lasting improvement. She was unable to tolerate higher levels of training or compete. Differential Diagnosis: The LMM are rich in muscle spindles and provide continuous feedback to the central nervous system about body position. Atrophy and fatty infiltrate of the LMM can compromise neuromuscular function and contribute to dysfunctional movement patterns that place a greater demand on lumbar spine structures. Ongoing motor-control impairments perpetuate nociceptive input, leading to central sensitization. Treatment: The athlete had difficulty controlling trunk extension during sport-specific activities; she moved early and to a greater extent in the lumbar spine. The aim of the treatment was to teach the athlete how to control her tendency to overload her lumbar spine when bending backward, thus reducing nociceptive input from lumbar spine structures and desensitizing the nervous system. Uniqueness: Treating EB LBP by addressing motor-control impairments and cognitive-affective factors as opposed to core strengthening. Conclusions: Activity modification, bracing, and traditional core-strengthening exercises may not be the most appropriate treatment for athletes experiencing EB LBP. Addressing cognitive-affective factors in addition to correcting maladaptive motor behavior and moving in a pain-free range reduces nociceptive input, desensitizes the nervous system, and allows athletes to gain control over their pain.

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Journal of Athletic Training

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