Disc degeneration on MRI is more prevalent in young elite skiers compared to controls

Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 2018 Jan;26(1):325-332. doi: 10.1007/s00167-017-4545-3. Epub 2017 Apr 13.


Purpose: Evidence-based facts regarding spine abnormalities and back pain are needed in order to develop rehabilitation programs and prevent spine injuries in young skiers. The aim therefore is to identify MRI changes in the thoraco-lumbar spine and the lifetime prevalence of back pain, as well as the association between them, in young skiers compared to non-athletes.

Methods: Seventy-five young elite alpine and mogul skiers, age range 16-20 years, were compared with 27 non-athletic controls. All subjects underwent spinal MRI and answered back pain questionnaires.

Results: Fifty-six percent of skiers had at least one disc Pfirrmann grade ≥3 compared to 30% of controls (p = 0.027). Schmorl's nodes (46%) and disc height reduction (37%) were significantly more prevalent in skiers compared to controls (0%) (p < 0.001). When all parameters were combined together, skiers had significantly higher rate of radiological changes than controls, 82% compared to 54% (p = 0.007). The mean number of discs with Pfirrmann grade ≥3 was 1.1 per individual in skiers (median 1, range 0-6) versus 0.6 in controls (median 0, range 0-3). There was no significant difference in lifetime prevalence of back pain between skiers (50%) and controls (44%) (n.s.). MRI abnormalities in skiers did not correlate with lifetime prevalence of back pain. Skiers had a better health perception than controls (p = 0.026).

Conclusion: Alpine skiers have more degenerative disc changes compared to non-athletes, but these changes do not correlate with the lifetime prevalence of back pain. Lifetime prevalence of back pain is not significantly different between the groups; however, skiers report more severe pain on VAS score.

Level of evidence: II.

Keywords: Athletes; Disc degeneration; MRI; Schmorl’s nodes; Skiers.

Publication types

  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Back Pain / epidemiology
  • Back Pain / etiology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / diagnostic imaging
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / epidemiology
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / etiology*
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Skiing*
  • Sweden / epidemiology
  • Thoracic Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging
  • Young Adult