Back Pain in Gaelic Games – why does it happen & what should be done?


The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) organizes Gaelic games, the two most prominent games being Gaelic football and hurling. Back pain is not uncommon among the athletes, affecting approximately 2.5% to 15% of those who participate. These athletes are amateurs playing on a voluntary basis, and some research has shown that those who play sports similar to those played in the GAA are more likely to experience back pain if they work in jobs that require periods of physical inactivity.

In general, people who play sports are more likely to receive medical attention than their peers who aren’t involved in sports, short-term recovery is generally poorer than for the general public. For amateur athletes who could potentially lose income due to an injury that causes them to miss work, an effective short-term recovery is essential.

Causes of Back Pain

Back pain has many potential causes. Some of the most common causes include disc bulges, disc degeneration, and disc protrusions. Health care professionals more often see these changes in the lower levels of the spine in athletes than in the general population. In about 5-10% of cases, these changes are associated with significant nerve damage. When nerve damage results in symptoms such as numbness, weakness, or pain in the leg, the damage may be associated with a prolapsed disc.

In as many as 90% of back pain cases, the pain is difficult to locate in one particular area of the lumbar spine. These cases, referred to as non-specific low back pain, are often the result of soft tissue damage. Soft tissue damage can include overland, sprains, or strains of the muscles and/or joints that support the spine at the lower back.

Injuries in the Gaelic Games

GAA athletes who are at increased risk for injury fall into two categories. The first category includes those who must sit still for long periods of time. This includes students who have to sit for exams, for example. The second category includes those whose jobs cause them to place heavy loads on their spines, e.g. exercise professionals, those who work in trades, and members of defence forces. These categories of athletes must take special care to train so as to reduce the risk of injury leading to back pain.

What Can Be Done?

Conditioning to get the athlete into shape for competing in the Gaelic games is the key to preventing back pain. Health care providers can work with athletes to come up with a comprehensive training program that takes prevention into account. Using video analysis is a technique that may be useful in looking for movement tendencies that could increase the risk of spinal sprain or injury. Working together, the athlete and the health care team can created an individualised training plan that increases strength and movement control.

Adding to the difficulty of short-term recovery from back pain in the amateur athlete is mental stress. The anxiety of an upcoming sporting event or of being cut from one’s team due to injuries can have an effect on the player’s recovery process. These issues should be addressed by the health care staff as part of the player’s recovery when injuries do occur. Health care providers can direct injured players toward thought processes that aid in speeding recovery rather than hindering it.


Back pain is relatively common in athletes, but in many cases it can be treated successfully. For the most successful and efficient outcome in an athlete’s short-term recovery, the health care provider must accurately diagnose and treat the player’s symptoms. An individualised training plan that takes into account the player’s lifestyle, work load, movement patterns, and stress levels can help minimise the risk of injury as well as aid in recovery if injuries do occur.


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