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Snooker: A Pain In The Neck?

Several snooker players have either been forced to retire or missed tournaments due to back and neck ailments. What causes this and how can they reduce their risk of suffering potentially career-threatening problems?

Early in the 2012/13 season, Joe Perry sat in an airport lounge in Singapore and called his wife. He was en route from a tournament in China to another in Australia, but had serious concerns about his future in snooker. Increasingly severe back pain had left him in a viscous circle of physical discomfort, low confidence and poor results.

“It was a nightmare,” recalls the 39-year-old from Chatteris. “I told my wife I was thinking about packing it in because I couldn’t take it any more. I felt there was no point me flying overseas then not being able to even practise, and losing matches. That’s when I decided I had to get to the root of it and how to treat it.

“I had been suffering from pain in my back and legs for many years and had been to various doctors. I was told I had a trapped nerve in my back. But it wasn’t improving so I went to see a consultant then went for a bone scan and some other tests. Eventually I was diagnosed correctly with a disease called Ankylosing spondylitis, and given the right advice.

“It comes in various strengths and luckily mine is one of the weaker ones. I have been told to do stretching and exercise as much as I can, because the less I do, the more it’s going to tighten up. I am just thankful that I was correctly diagnosed because before that, when I was in pain I was resting because I thought that was the best way to treat it, but in fact that was making it worse.

“If have a couple of days on holiday when I’m lying around the beach or by the pool doing nothing, that’s when I was getting twinges and warning signs that I needed to get active. I’ve got exercises that I’m supposed to do every day. If I have a long flight to China I’ll go to my room straight away and do 20 minutes on my own stretching. I try to go to the gym as much as I can. It’s a horrible thing because there are no physical signs of it so it’s hard to make someone understand the symptoms and the pain. It can be agony at times and you can’t play in that sort of pain so I was really worried about how it would affect my career.”

Perry, who has since regained his place among the world’s top 16 and is now enjoying his best ever season, is not the only player to have suffered from Ankylosing spondylitis. Scotland’s Chris Small was in the prime of his career, having won the LG Cup ranking event and climbed to number 12 in the world, when he was forced to retire because of the effects of the disease.

Small tried a range of treatments, from steroid injections to – bizarrely – placing magnets in his shoes and under his bed, and even having extract of mouse drip-fed into his body. It didn’t work and he had to give up snooker – though he did develop a fondness for cheese sandwiches.

Many other players have experienced a variety of back and neck problems. Martin Clark, the former world number 10 who is now one of World Snooker’s tournament directors, had to quit the sport early because of worn vertebrae in his upper spine which meant he could not play for more than an hour pain free.

Two years ago, Mark Selby had to pull out of the China Open just before the World Championship because of a bulging disc in his upper spine, and had such limited preparation for the Crucible that he lost 10-3 to Barry Hawkins in the first round.

“There are shots I can’t play because of the pain. I can’t play with the rest because I get excruciating pain in my arm,” said Selby.

Ian McCulloch, who reached the semi-finals at the Crucible in 2005, retired in 2012 following problems with his back, neck and shoulder which he could not recover from, despite surgery. Anthony Hamilton, four times a quarter-finalist at Sheffield, is still plying his trade on the main tour, but has chronic neck pain which he believes will force him to put away his cue for good within three years.

And five-time ranking event winner Stephen Maguire revealed he was struggling with a bulging disc at the base of his spine at the Welsh Open in February, which subsequently caused him to pull out of the China Open.

So why do so many snooker players experience back and neck complaints, and what can they do about it?

David Hirschowitz FRCS, a leading expert on orthopaedics, explains: “Snooker produces static strains. The player is getting into an awkward position and staying there. The posture of the back and neck, with the feet firmly on the ground and the head tilted up, produces strain. It’s not surprising that back and neck problems are prevalent.

“This is common in certain other sports. For example fast bowlers in cricket often suffer back pain because of the repetitive action of coming down on the front foot hard, jerking everything upwards. That’s a much more violent action than you see in snooker, which is more about putting the body into a static position which puts pressure on certain parts of the body. The two discs at the base of the spine, and those in the lower part of the cervical (upper) spine, are the most vulnerable areas.

“It’s a form of repetitive strain, especially if the player is practising six or seven hours a day, or playing long matches. It’s an abnormal posture. There are countless occupations followed by humans now which we never did during the evolutionary process. For example, the body is not designed to spend eight hours a day sitting in an office chair. We are designed to be standing straight most of the time, not bent over for long periods. Back problems are becoming more and more frequent among people in a wide variety of walks of life.

“Ankylosing spondylitis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease. The cause of it is not really known, but it’s not related to physical activities. So the players who have suffered from this condition didn’t develop it by playing snooker. But their symptoms are likely to have developed more quickly. It’s a disease which tends to start in young adults and then progress. Many people don’t develop the symptoms for years. But it might be that snooker players who have Ankylosing spondylitis get symptoms earlier because of the abnormal way in which they treat their backs.”

Reducing risk

Five ways for snooker players to lower their risk of developing back problems.

1. Keep fit and exercise. Stronger, more flexible muscles are better at protecting the vulnerable parts of the body. Simple stretching exercises, done regularly, provide significant benefits and reduce risk of a range of ailments. To protect the back, these exercises should be focussed on strengthening core stability; the muscles around the abdominal wall, the pelvis, the lower back and the diaphragm. Taking a regular yoga or pilates class is an excellent solution.

2. Lose weight. It’s a simple equation: the more weight the back has to carry, the more strain it is put under.

3. Don’t smoke. Recent research shows that smoking reduces the blood flow to certain areas of the body, which makes muscles less effective.

4. Break up practice. If playing for six hours in a day, divide it into three parts of two hours each, with rest in between.

5. Travel smart. On long haul flights, don’t sit for hours on end without moving. Our backs aren’t designed for that. Get up once an hour and walk up and down for a few minutes. The same applies to long car journeys.

So the message is clear: whether you are a casual player or a leading professional, it’s time to show some spine and start looking after your back…before it’s too late.