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'You’re the best liar in the world’: a grounded theory study of rowing athletes’ experience of low back pain
  1. Fiona Wilson1,
  2. Leo Ng2,
  3. Kieran O'Sullivan3,4,
  4. J P Caneiro2,
  5. Peter PB O'Sullivan2,
  6. Alex Horgan1,
  7. Jane S Thornton5,6,
  8. Kellie Wilkie7,
  9. Virpi Timonen8
  1. 1 Discipline of Physiotherapy, School of Medicine, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
  2. 2 School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, Faculty of Health Science, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
  3. 3 School of Allied Health, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland
  4. 4 Health Research Institute, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland
  5. 5 Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada
  6. 6 Western Centre for Public Health and Family Medicine, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada
  7. 7 Bodysystem Physio, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
  8. 8 School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
  1. Correspondence to Dr Fiona Wilson, School Of Physiotherapy, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland; wilsonf{at}


Objectives Low back pain (LBP) is common in rowers and leads to considerable disability and even retirement. The athlete voice can help clinicians to better understand sport-related pain disorders. We aimed to capture the lived experience of LBP in rowers.

Methods Cross-sectional qualitative study using a grounded theory approach. Adult competitive rowers with a rowing-related LBP history were recruited in Australia and Ireland. Data were collected through interviews that explored: context around the time of onset of their LBP and their subsequent journey, experiences of management/treatment, perspectives around present beliefs, fears, barriers and expectations for the future.

Results The 25 rowers (12 women/13 men) who participated were aged 18–50 years; they had a mean 12.1 years of rowing experience. They discussed a culture of concealment of pain from coaches and teammates, and fear of being judged as ‘weak’ because of the limitations caused by LBP. They reported fear and isolation as a result of their pain. They felt that the culture within rowing supported this. They reported inconsistent messages regarding management from medical staff. Some rowers reported being in a system where openness was encouraged—they regarded this a leading to better outcomes and influencing their LBP experience.

Conclusions Rowers’ lived experience of LBP was influenced by a pervasive culture of secrecy around symptoms. Rowers and support staff should be educated regarding the benefits of early disclosure and rowers should be supported to do so without judgement.

  • lumbar spine
  • back
  • rowing
  • sport
  • injury

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  • Twitter @fionawilsonf, @kieranosull, @janesthornton

  • Contributors Study concept, design and management: FW, JPC, PPBO, KO and VT. Data Collection: LN, JPC and FW. Data analysis: FW, AH and VT. Data review and interpretation: all authors. Manuscript writing: all authors

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval Ethical approvals were granted by the Faculty of Health Sciences Research Ethics Committee (Trinity College Dublin) and the Human Research Ethics Committee (Curtin University approval RDHS-59–16).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are available on reasonable request. Data are available, stored as encrypted audio files with FW and LN. Transcripts are stored on an encrypted database with FW. Pseudanonymised data are available on reasonable request.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.