Overweight and obese children are waddling toward back problems, including spinal degeneration, according to new research.

Being overweight as a child could lead to early degeneration in the spine, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of U.S. children (age 6-11) and 18 percent of U.S. adolescents (age 12-19) are overweight.

“This is the first study to show an association between increased body mass index (BMI) and disc abnormalities in children,” said the study’s lead author, Judah G. Burns, M.D., fellow in diagnostic neuroradiology at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, in an RSNA press release.

In this retrospective study, Burns and colleagues reviewed MR images of the spines of 188 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 20 who complained of back pain and were imaged at the hospital over a four-year period. Trauma and other conditions that would predispose children to back pain were eliminated from the study.

The images revealed that 52.1 percent of the patients had some abnormality in the lower, or lumbar, spine. Most of those abnormalities occurred within the discs, which are sponge-like cushions in between the bones of the spine. Disc disease occurs when a bulging or ruptured disc presses on nerves, causing pain or weakness.

“In children, back pain is usually attributed to muscle spasm or sprain,” Burns said. “It is assumed that disc disease does not occur in children, but my experience says otherwise.”

BMI, a mathematical ratio of body weight and height, is a widely used measurement for obesity. Lower BMI is associated with being underweight or a healthy body size; higher BMI scores are associated with being overweight or obese. Children above the 85th percentile are generally classified as overweight or at risk of being overweight.

“We observed a trend toward increased spine abnormality with higher BMI,” Dr. Burns said. “These results demonstrate a strong relationship between increased BMI in the pediatric population and the incidence of lumbar disc disease.”

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