Childhood obesity could cause early disc degeneration that leads to back pain and other spinal abnormalities, according to new findings that researchers suggest challenge beliefs concerning children and degenerative disc disease.
As recently presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, a new study examined approximately 188 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 20 who complained of back pain and sought care during a 4-year period at New York City’s The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore.
Analyzing MRI images of the spine, researchers found that 52.1 percent of the child patients (98 out of 188) had some abnormality in the lumbar spine (lower back), with most of these abnormalities related to the shock-absorbing discs between the spinal vertebrae.
For 56.4 percent of these child patients (106 out of 188), researchers were able to determine an age-adjusted body mass index (BMI), a mathematical ratio of body weight and height that equates lower BMI scores with being underweight or having a healthy body size and higher BMI scores with being overweight.
According to the findings, 50.9 percent of these patients (54 out of 106) had a BMI greater than the 75th percentile, with children above the 85th percentile considered overweight or at risk of obesity.
Approximately 68.5 percent of these children with higher BMI scores (37 out of 54) had abnormal MRI findings on their spine. On the other hand, only 18 children who were at or below a healthy weight had an MRI showing spinal abnormalities.
It is important to note that diagnostic tests like MRI can not determine what actually causes back pain, and that a patient with back pain may have an MRI showing a perfect spine while a patient without back pain may have an MRI showing an abnormal spine.
According to the researchers, this study's findings are interesting for several reasons, especially when considering that most childhood back pain is attributed to muscle spasms or strains with the assumption that degenerative disc disease does not occur in youths.