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Is weightlifting safe for young athlete's back?

Summary of a study investigating lower backs of young Olympic weightlifters over 3 years.

Who

12 (6 females, 6 males) Olympic weightlifters aged 11.4±2.0 years with at least 2 years of experience (Japan).

Design

3 years of surveys and lumbar MRI examination (anually).

Outcome measures

  • low back pain (pain for more than one week that prevented weightlifting practice)
  • MRI abnormalities of lumbar (lower back) vertebrae (L1 to S1)

Main results

Is weightlifting safe for young athlete's back? - Infographic

  • athletes trained on average 2 hours per day, 5 days per week (approximately 500 hours per year)
  • Out of 12 weightlifters:
    • at baseline, only 2 had lumbar disc degeneration detected on MRI.
    • after 2 years, there was 1 athlete had low back pain, and 8 athletes with abnormal MRI findings.
    • after 3 years, 3 athletes had low back pain and 11 had abnormal MRI findings:
      • lumbar (lower back) spondylolysis - 4 athletes
      • lumbar disc protrusion - 2 athletes
      • lumbar disc degeneration - 9 athletes
  • In summary, over 3 years, abnormal MRI findings went from 17% to 92%, but only 25% of young weightlifters (average age 11 years) developed low back pain symptoms. In comparison, abnormal MRI findings are present in about 30% of general population of 15-years-olds.

spondylolysisa fracture through a part of the lumbar (low back) verterbrae

disc protrusiona disc bulge that goes into the spinal canal

disc degenerationanatomical changes and loss of function in the disc. Happens with aging and/or injury

Take home message

For a clinician & coach
Over 3 years, abnormal MRI findings went from 17% to 92%, but only 25% of young weightlifters (average age 11 years) developed low back pain (symptoms). In comparison, abnormal MRI findings are present in about 30% of general population of 15-years-olds.
For a parent
Over 3 years of doing Olympic weightlifting, almost all of the young athletes (average age 11 years) developed some kind of changes in the spine, but only 25% (1 out of 4 athletes) had any symptoms (like low back pain).
For an athlete
Over 3 years of doing Olympic weightlifting, almost all of the young athletes (average age 11 years) developed some kind of changes in the spine, but only 25% of them had any symptoms (like low back pain).

Original article

Shimozaki K, Nakase J, Yoshioka K, Takata Y, Asai K, Kitaoka K, Tsuchiya H. Incidence rates and characteristics of abnormal lumbar findings and low back pain in child and adolescent weightlifter: A prospective three-year cohort study. PLoS One. 2018 Oct 29;13(10):e0206125.

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