Background: Pilots who fly jet fighters or helicopters frequently experience vertebral problems due to acceleration and vibration, wearing helmets and other headgear, and sitting in suboptimal postures.
Methods: We looked for spondylarthritic or spondylitic changes in 4-view radiographs (AP, lateral, left and right oblique) of the cervical and lumbar vertebrae of 732 pilots and 202 non-flying controls. The subjects included 91 F-16 jet pilots, 363 other jet pilots, 119 transport pilots, and 159 helicopter pilots.
Results: The prevalence of cervical changes in helicopter pilots was 19%, significantly higher than those for other pilots (8-13%) or controls (10%). There was no difference among groups with respect to prevalence of lumbar changes. Among all pilots, compression fractures were more common in the lumbar region than in the cervical region. Age was the most important variable related to spondylarthritic or spondylitic changes in all subjects, whereas height was an important factor only among jet pilots.
Conclusion: We found an increased prevalence of cervical changes, especially osteoarthritis, in helicopter pilots. Increasing age and tall stature were associated with an increased prevalence of vertebral spondylarthritic or spondylitic changes in jet pilots.