NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Elite tennis players in their teens appear to have a very high rate of lower spine injury, a new study suggests. Although the subjects in this study did not have symptoms, the researchers point out that these injuries will probably progress to more serious conditions if training techniques are not modified.
The British researchers found that of 33 elite-level tennis players they examined, 85 percent had some sort of abnormality in the lower spine. Damage to the joints at the back of the spine, stress fractures and herniated discs were among the problems seen on MRI scans.
The players' average age was 17.
Tennis players' careers depend largely on how well they perform at the junior level, the study authors note in their report, published online by the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
This means that during their growth spurt years, young athletes are going through frequent and intense training that can raise their risk of injury.
Tennis involves constant spinal movements -- like quick twists and backward arching -- that can account for the injuries seen in this study, according to the authors, led by Dr. David Connell of the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital.
The findings are based on 18 male and 15 female athletes training at a UK national tennis center. None complained of any back pain, but using MRI scans, Connell's team found that only five players had normal exam results.
The most common abnormality was facet joint arthropathy, damage to joints at the back of the spine that are involved in backward arching. A full 70 percent of the players showed this problem; in contrast, studies of middle-aged adults in the general population have found that 8 percent to 21 percent of symptom-free people have facet joint arthropathy, Connell and his colleagues point out.
In addition, the researchers found, more than one quarter of the players had sustained stress fractures in bone structures at the back of the spine, while nearly 40 percent had herniated spinal discs.
It's important to spot such abnormalities, they conclude, so that training can be modified to prevent the problem from worsening.
SOURCE: British Journal of Sports Medicine, July 19, 2007 online.