Kids Can Suffer From Disc Degeneration, Too

Conventional wisdom has held that back problems occurred after puberty

MONDAY, Dec. 1, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Almost one child in 10 shows signs of back problems before puberty, a new British study finds.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers found that about 9 percent of 10-year-olds studied already showed signs of an abnormality in at least one disc in their spine.

"The observation that 14 [out of 154] 10-year-olds had signs of asymptomatic disc degeneration was a surprise. Previous thinking was that disc degeneration occurred after puberty," says study author Dr. Francis Smith, a consultant radiologist and sports medicine physician at Woodland Hospital in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Smith is to present the findings on Dec. 2 at the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting in Chicago.

It shouldn't be too surprising, however, that some children may have the beginnings of back problems because almost everyone suffers from back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

For this study, Smith and his colleagues looked at MRI scans from 154 10-year-olds from Scotland. Seventy-nine were female. None of the children had ever had any problems with their back, and none was reporting any back pain or other symptoms of disc degeneration. Yet, 14 children had signs of intervertebral disc degeneration on their MRI scans.

Intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers for the back. They are round, spongy pads of cartilage found between each vertebrae. If they begin to bulge out of the vertebral area they can press on nerves and cause pain. Sometimes, they also tear and then can't cushion the vertebrae effectively. Normally, this type of injury is attributed to the wear and tear that comes with age.

However, in the 14 10-year-olds with abnormal MRIs, discs in their lower backs were already showing signs of bulging and tearing.

Smith says the cause of this early degeneration is unknown: "This is the $64,000 question."

Adds Dr. William Sanders, a neuroradiologist with William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., "Without a significant history of trauma, or repeated trauma, like an Olympic athlete might have, you wouldn't expect to see disc degeneration in that high a percentage of children."

Sanders does point out, however, that disc degeneration isn't always easy to determine from MRI scans, and it's possible there might be another explanation for what was seen on the scans, though it likely was degeneration.

Both Sanders and Smith recommend taking preventative steps, whether you're a child or an adult, to keep your back healthy. Both recommend not carrying heavy loads.

"One major improvement to child back care would be the cessation of wearing heavy backpacks to school," says Smith.

Sanders also says proper posture is important and that you and your children should stretch before doing any physical activity.

More information

To learn more about back pain and for tips on preventing back problems, visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

SOURCES: Francis Smith, M.D., radiologist and sports medicine physician, Woodland Hospital, Aberdeen, Scotland; William Sanders, M.D., neuroradiologist, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; Dec. 2, 2003, presentation, Radiological Society of North America annual meeting, Chicago
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