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Competitive sports tied to teens’ back pain

BackacheFeb 01, 10

Years of competitive sports may raise teenagers’ risk of developing lower back pain, a new study finds.

The study, of nearly 4,700 18-year-old college students, found that those who had been involved in sports since elementary school had higher rates of low back pain than their less-competitive peers.

Overall, 72 percent reported ever having had a bout of back pain, compared with 62 percent of those who had spent fewer years playing sports, and half of students who had never been involved in competitive sports.

Their rates of more serious, debilitating back pain were also elevated, according to findings published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

The implication is that the more years kids spend in competitive sports, the greater their odds of suffering back pain, write Dr. Mika Hangai of the University of Tsukuba in Japan and colleagues.

Exactly what is increasing the risk—whether training techniques, for example, or certain postures or motions in particular sports—is not clear. Further research is needed to answer that question, according to Hangai’s team, since that could lead to ways to prevent some cases of lower back pain.

The results do not mean, however, that kids are better off on the couch than the playing field. Regular exercise is important for weight control and good health.

Moreover, Hangai’s team points out, studies have also suggested that too much TV time and inactivity can put kids at risk of lower back pain.

For their study, Hangai and her colleagues surveyed 4,667 college freshman about their past sports activities and any episodes of lower back pain.

Students who said they had been in competitive sports in elementary school, junior high and high school were considered to be highly active. Those who played sports at only one or two of those school levels were considered moderately active.

Of students in the highly active group, roughly 10 percent said they had ever missed school due to lower back pain. That compared with about 6 percent of moderately active students and 4 percent of those who had never played competitive sports.

The most competitive students also reported higher rates of back pain accompanied by pain and numbness in the legs: nearly 15 percent, versus 8.5 percent among moderately active athletes and 4 percent of non-athletes.

Out of the eight most common sports in the study group, volleyball players had the highest risk of lower back pain, with about 80 percent reporting the problem. Soccer players had the lowest risk—with a little more 60 percent having ever suffered low back pain—but their odds were still greater than those of non-athletes.

The findings do not prove that sports caused the students’ pain, Hangai and colleagues point out. Still, the researchers write, they do suggest that “excessive exposure” to competitive sports is a risk factor for lower back pain.

Future studies, they conclude, “should investigate factors that may cause (lower back pain), such as sports-specific postures and motions.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Sports Medicine, online January 5, 2010.

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