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Revolutionizing Spine Care…Changing Lives

How Can Elite Olympic Athletes Avoid Back Injuries?

Beginning in 1896 in Athens, Greece, and continuing every four years thereafter, the Summer Olympic Games bring the best athletes in the world to one spot on the globe to compete. According to the official website of the games, the Summer Olympics have increased in scope from a 42-event competition program in 1896 with fewer than 250 male competitors from 14 nations to 339 events in 2021 with 11,420 competitors (almost half of whom were women) from 206 nations.

These games represent the pinnacle for the men and women who compete in them, and the pressure to win involves constant training. In some cases, the wear and tear on these elite athletes from this training and competition causes injuries to the neck, back, and spine.

Dr. Peter Derman — Spine Surgeon and Lifelong Athlete

Dr. Peter Derman on gymnastic rings

When he was growing up in Dallas, at age 5, young Peter Derman discovered his passion and natural ability for gymnastics. His coaches realized just how good he was at this multi-event sport and encouraged him to compete at the highest levels. He pursued this love of the sport through elementary, middle, and high school, and then went on to excel in college as the captain of the gymnastics team at Stanford University. Derman was also skilled at academics, especially biology and mathematics.

At Stanford, the time came when he had to choose between continuing to pursue his passion for gymnastics (and possibly competing in the Summer Games) or leaving athletics to attend medical school and become a physician. While this decision was bittersweet for the now “Dr. Derman,” a gifted spine surgeon at Texas Back Institute, his patients, many of whom have dramatically improved their quality of life, are glad he made the choice he did! To them, Dr. Derman is very much a winner.

Below is a quick history of Peter Derman, a highly competitive athlete and exemplary spine surgeon

Dr. Peter Derman, Orthopedic Spine Surgeon at Texas Back Institute

A Spine Expert Looks at Potential Injuries in the Summer Games

As a world-class athlete and now a world-class surgeon, Dr. Peter Derman may be the perfect person to offer insights about the types of injuries the athletes competing in the summer games might encounter.

Based on these sports featured in the 2024 games in Paris, which are the most likely to cause injuries to the back, spine, or neck, and what is it about them that makes them dangerous for the athletes?

“Athletes in any sport can experience neck and back injuries, but the types of injuries typically sustained can vary by sport,” Dr. Derman said. “The most feared injury—a spinal fracture with associated paralysis—can occur in athletes in contact sports such as wrestling and hockey or acrobatic sports (gymnastics, BMX biking, aerial ski jumping), but fortunately are quite rare.

“Overuse injuries, while less dramatic, are more common and can certainly derail an athlete’s career. Sports that involve some combination of repetitive bending, lifting, and twisting, such as golf, tennis, weightlifting, rowing, and volleyball, place large loads across the spine. This can result in muscle strains, joint sprains, and/or wear and tear of the discs between the bones. Occasionally, this can result in bugling of the discs and pinching of nerves, which can cause pain, numbness, tingling, or even weakness in the arm or legs.”

Dr. Peter Derman spine surgeon, Texas Back Institute

How Can Elite Athletes Avoid Injuries?

The Summer Games are replete with stories about injuries to athletes, causing them to withdraw from the competition.

Dr. Derman explains how athletes can avoid debilitating injuries to the back and neck.

“Appropriate training is the key to minimizing the chance of injury. This involves warming up before activity, maintaining good form throughout, and not over-training,” he said.

“High-level athletes need a carefully crafted annual training program that fluctuates in intensity to allow them to peak at the optimal time(s) during their competitive season and affords periods of recovery to reduce the chance of overuse injury. ‘More’ is not always better for an elite athlete, and it is important to strategically schedule periods of relative rest to allow the body to recover.”

How Weekend Warriors Can Avoid Injuries

While there are no statistics on what an athletic spectacle like the Paris Games does for increasing participation in sports, the anecdotal data suggests that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of injuries caused to “weekend warriors” who get excited about the Games and want to see if they have what it takes to be an Olympian!

This presents more than a few problems, which can result in these amateur athletes experiencing minor or serious injuries and showing up in the ER or the waiting room of Texas Back Institute.

“It is inspiring and motivating to watch Olympians perform seemingly superhuman feats,” Dr. Derman noted. “However, it is important to remember that the athletes on the screen have been training for years for this moment. They are in optimal health, have had professional coaching, and may be decades younger than some of us.

“Those of us watching from home could likely all benefit from more physical activity, but successfully going from the watching to a marathon runner is not an overnight process. Take it slowly and listen to your body. Seek out professional coaching (e.g., tennis/golf pro or personal trainer) to optimize your form and training schedule. And don’t ignore injuries, or they will only get worse.”

Once an Athlete, Always an Athlete

It is no coincidence that Peter Derman chose to become a spine surgeon, one of the toughest of medical specialties. He clearly loves a challenge. From an early age, he was a competitor and remains a competitor even to this day.

So, what events will this former athlete be watching at the Paris Games?

“The Olympics may be the only chance that athletes in less mainstream sports have to truly be on the world stage,” he said. “As a former competitive gymnast, I spent 17 years of my life dedicated to a sport that the general public rarely gets a chance to watch. So, I enjoy tuning in to things like gymnastics, kayaking, rock climbing, and table tennis. The more obscure, the better!”

 

If you catch the “spirit of competition” this summer or anytime in the future and feel that unmistakable twinge of pain in the back or neck, don’t “just walk it off!”  Make an appointment to see Dr. Derman or any of the world-class spine experts at Texas Back Institute.

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