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Overweight Children Develop Back Problems as Adults


Overweight children are at risk of early degeneration of the spine, which can result in back problems when they become adults, according to new research. The study was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America and is the first to show a relationship between being overweight and disc abnormalities in children.

An increasing number of children are overweight, placing them at risk of various medical maladies, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and back problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of children ages 2 to 5, 15 percent of those ages 6 to 11, and 18 percent of those ages 12 to 19 are overweight.

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In the study, Judah G. Burns, MD, fellow in diagnostic neuroradiology at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, and colleagues reviewed the magnetic resonance images of the spines of 188 children ages 12 to 20. All of the children had complained of back pain and underwent imaging over a four-year period. None of the children in the study had back pain that was associated with trauma or other conditions.

Review of the images revealed that 98 children (52.1%) had an abnormality in the lower spine. The researchers identified the body mass index (BMI) for 106 of the 188 patients. Children who are above the 85th percentile are usually classified as overweight or at risk of being overweight. In this study, 54 children had a BMI greater than the 75th percentile for age, and 37 of these children (68.5%) had abnormalities of the spine. Only 18 (34.6%) of the children at or below a healthy weight had a spinal abnormality.

The researchers noted a relationship between an increased BMI among children and the incidence of disc abnormalities in the lower back (lumbar region). This trend could present a significant health problem as overweight children grow into adulthood. Given that back pain is already a significant and costly health problem in the United States, affecting 80 percent of people at some point in their lives, more effort needs to be given to fighting overweight in children and to preventing the development of back problems in children that will follow them into adulthood.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Radiological Society of North America