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A pilot study of the prevalence of lumbar disc degeneration in elite athletes with lower back pain at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games
  1. A Ong1,
  2. J Anderson2,
  3. J Roche3
  1. 1Sutherland Hospital, Sydney, Australia
  2. 2Sports Medicine Program, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia
  3. 3Radiology Department, Royal North Shore Hospital, Australia
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr Ong, Medical Imaging Department, St George Hospital, Gray St, Kogarah 2217, NSW, Australia; 


Objectives: To observe the prevalence of lumbar intervertebral disc degeneration in elite athletes as compared with published literature of changes seen in non-athletes—that is, normal population.

Methods: The lumbar spines of 31 Olympic athletes who presented to the Olympic Polyclinic with low back pain and/or sciatica were examined using magnetic resonance imaging. Three criteria were looked at: (a) the loss of disc signal intensity; (b) the loss of disc height; (c) the presence of disc displacement. The results were then recorded and correlated with the lumbar levels.

Results: The disc signal intensity was progressively reduced the more caudal the disc space. It was most common at the L5/S1 level, and, of the abnormal group, 36% (n = 11) showed the most degenerative change. Disc height reduction was also found to be most common at the L5/S1 level. However, the most common height reduction was only mild. A similar trend of increased prevalence of disc herniation was noted with more caudal levels. At the L5/S1 level, 58% were found to have an element of disc displacement, most of which were disc bulges. Compared with changes seen in the normal population (non-athletes) as described in the literature, disc degeneration defined by the above criteria was found to be significantly more severe in these Olympic athletes.

Conclusions: Although the study was limited, the results suggest that elite athletes have a greater prevalence and greater degree of lumbar disc degeneration than the normal population. A more detailed follow up study should be considered to investigate which particular training activities have the most impact on the lumbar spine, and how to modify training methods so as to avoid the long term sequelae of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.

  • disc degeneration
  • lumbar spine
  • spine
  • back
  • Olympic athletes

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