Heavy kids may suffer back pain, spinal disc woes

CHICAGO (Reuters Health) - Add severe back pain and spine abnormalities to the list of problems overweight and obese adolescents can develop.

Among a group of young people who came to an emergency department for severe back pain, researchers found that many had abnormalities in the lower spine. Most of those abnormalities occurred within the discs, which are sponge-like cushions in between the bones of the spine.

Spinal disc abnormalities were more common in children who were overweight or obese.

“Back pain and degenerative disc disease are yet another problem associated with obesity in children, along with type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Judah G. Burns, of The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City reported here at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA 2009).

“Disc herniation and spinal disease are generally thought of as a problem of older people, but we’re seeing it in obese youngsters, too. This is the first study to show an association between increased body mass index and disc abnormalities in children,” Burns noted.

Burns and colleagues reviewed spinal images of 188 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 20 who complained of back pain and were imaged at the hospital over a four-year period. Children with trauma and other conditions that would predispose them to back pain were excluded.

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The researchers found that more than half (52 percent) of the patients complaining of back pain had some abnormality in the lower, or lumbar, spine. All but six of these patients had disc disease.

Patients who were overweight or obese were more apt to have disc trouble than their leaner counterparts.

Height and weight data, available for 108 of the patients, showed that 66 percent of those who were overweight had a spine abnormality on imaging, compared with 38 percent of those who were not overweight.

The study suggests that being overweight as a child could lead to early degeneration of the spine.

“We saw increased spine abnormalities with higher BMI,” indicating a “strong relationship” between being overweight early in life and disc disease, Burns said.

“In children, back pain is usually attributed to muscle spasm or sprain,” Burns said in a statement. “It is assumed that disc disease does not occur in children, but my experience says otherwise.”