Gregory D. Schroeder, Cynthia R. LaBella, Marco Mendoza, Erika L. Daley, Jason W. Savage, Alpesh A. Patel, Wellington K. Hsu

September 2016, Volume 25, Issue 9, pp 2842 - 2848 Original Article Read Full Article 10.1007/s00586-016-4647-5

First Online: 13 June 2016


To determine if adolescent athletics increases the risk of structural abnormalities in the lumbar spine.


A retrospective review of patients (ages 10–18) between 2004 and 2012 was performed. Pediatric patients with symptomatic low back pain, a lumbar spine MRI, and reported weekly athletic activity were included. Patients were stratified to an “athlete” and “non-athlete” group. Lumbar magnetic resonance and plain radiographic imaging was randomized, blinded, and evaluated by two authors for a Pfirrmann grade, herniated disc, and/or pars fracture.


A total of 114 patients met the inclusion criteria and were stratified into 66 athletes and 48 non-athletes. Athletes were more likely to have abnormal findings compared to non-athletes (67 vs. 40 %, respectively, p = 0.01). Specifically, the prevalence of a spondylolysis with or without a slip was higher in athletes vs. non-athletes (32 vs. 2 %, respectively, p = 0.0003); however, there was no difference in the average Pfirrmann grade (1.19 vs. 1.14, p = 0.41), percentage of patients with at least one degenerative disc (39 vs. 31 %, p = 0.41), or disc herniation (27 vs. 33 %, p = 0.43). Body mass index, smoking history, and pelvic incidence (51.5° vs. 48.7°, respectively, p = 0.41) were similar between the groups.


Adolescents with low back pain have a higher-than-expected prevalence of structural pathology regardless of athletic activity. Independent of pelvic incidence, adolescent athletes with low back pain had a higher prevalence of spondylolysis compared to adolescent non-athletes with back pain, but there was no difference in associated disc degenerative changes or herniation.

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