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MRI Reveals Prevalence of Spinal Injuries in Olympic Athletes

At the 2016 Games, divers and weightlifters had the highest incidence of spinal damage.

Jill Sakai, Contributor
Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Repetitive motions and high activity levels place athletes at increased risk of spinal damage due to overuse or acute injury. A study published in March in the journal BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine evaluated the epidemiology of spinal pathologies in athletes at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Overall, 100 out of 11,274 participating athletes (0.9 percent) received a spinal MRI during the Rio Games. Of these, 52 percent showed moderate to severe spinal damage, including disc degeneration, spinal canal or neural foraminal narrowing, soft tissue injuries, cracks or stress fractures. The majority of spinal MRIs (80 out of 107 scans) targeted the lumbar region.

Sport-specific incidence of spinal damage was highest among divers, with positive spine MRIs reported for 1 out of every 33 divers at the games; second-highest incidence was in weightlifters, with 1 out of every 63 lifters affected. In both sports, damage affected the lumbar region. The authors suggest these were likely chronic injuries due to repetitive lifting, bending or twisting motions involving the lower back. Other sports with a notable incidence of spinal damage included judo and athletics, which includes track and field, road running and walking events.

Athletes older than 30 years had a higher incidence of moderate to severe spinal damage than younger athletes. This may be due to the progression of chronic conditions, although older athletes may also be more prone to acute injury. Acute spinal injuries were more common in women than in men.

Although the study did not track outcomes of the pathologies noted in the study, the authors note that spinal damage can have long-term health impacts. They recommend that sports training programs work to identify likely causes of spinal damage and adopt practices to reduce the incidence and progression of sports-related spinal injuries.