Mark McGwire, First Base for the St. Louis Cardinals

From the WebMD Archives

NAME: Mark McGwire
TEAM: St. Louis Cardinals
POSITION: First base
INJURY: Strained back


Basketball: Toni Kukoc, Philadelphia 76ers; Zan Tabak, Indiana Pacers; Baseball: Jaret Wright, Cleveland Indians; Pedro Martinez, Boston Red Sox


Mark McGwire is most famous for shattering Roger Maris' home run record of 61 homers in a season when he hit 70 in 1998. He followed up that season by hitting 65 home runs in 1999 and also hit his 500th career home run. At 36, he is in his 15th major league season; he played 12 seasons for the Oakland Athletics and has been with the Cardinals for three seasons. While in Oakland, McGwire teamed up with José Canseco to form the "Bash Brothers." In college, he set the Pac-10 conference single-season record with 32 home runs. He also played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic baseball team.


Over the course of spring training, McGwire developed some pain and discomfort in his back and, when the pain did not quickly subside, he had his back examined. He sat out a few games and rested the back as best he could, but mild pain persisted. On April 15, McGwire was again examined, and it was feared that he might have suffered a disc injury, but tests were negative. He has since returned to limited, then normal, action and playing time. McGwire explained the situation, "When you look at the long haul of the season and you think it's probably going to be bothersome all year, then [you] want to take time to get it done and taken care of."


A strained back is the aggravation and inflammation of muscles and tendons in the back. It may be caused by overuse or repetitive strain, improper stretching, or pulling the muscles during one particular motion. The particular muscles affected are the paravertebral muscles that are found on either side of the spine in the lower back. The muscles are used during everyday events such as walking or sitting down, but are especially strained during lifting. For a baseball player, the area is further strained by batting. During the motion of swinging the bat, the player quickly twists or wrenches his back. The injury is age- and weight-related. Athletes are far more likely to strain back muscles as they grow older. But strained backs are not limited to athletes. Many people strain back muscles while lifting heavy boxes or participating in sports, as they grow older.


Back injuries are diagnosed using clinical exam. They are most often detected when athletes complain of soreness, pain, and tightness in the back. Typical strains include mild pain and almost constant discomfort. Tests such as X-rays may be used to distinguish muscular strains from bone problems, and an MRI or CAT scan may confirm the existence and severity of the injury.


Treatment for the injury is simple. As a strain is a mild muscular injury, it is treated with rest, ice, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Most importantly, the athlete must try to limit all use and movement of the back, because it is far more difficult to immobilize than an extremity. Sometimes athletes try to play through back pain; in almost all cases, the pain does not go away and eventually worsens.


The recovery period may vary from 1-2 days to 2-3 weeks. In McGwire's case, the injury occurred very early in the season, and he chose to be very cautious and rest his back for a longer period of time. Even though he is taking this time off, it is likely that he will require more days off during the season than he has in the past; he may require a few days off at some point just to rest his back. Like most back injuries, this is a nagging problem, and as the season winds down, he may play through some minor pain.


McGwire will be affected in two ways. First, due to soreness and the need for rest, he will probably miss more games than he has over his last two seasons. Second, he may lose a tiny amount of strength and mobility in his back that would slightly lessen his power. Due to the nature of strained backs, there is a good possibility that he will reinjure his back if he does not correct the motion that caused the injury. Because that motion involved swinging a bat, even if he rests his back all of next off-season, there is still a chance he will suffer from soreness when he returns to play.

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Medical information was provided by Jack McPhilemy, DO, professor and chairman of the department of orthopaedic surgery at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. McPhilemy also is the team physician for the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.

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