Have you heard of degenerative disc disease in a college athlete? That's what's happened to our son. Does this happen very often?

Most often, degenerative disc disease (DDD) occurs as part of the aging process. But there are other factors that can accelerate this condition and bring it on sooner. The most common is repetitive physical loading of the spine from overtraining and strenuous exercise.

Activities that involve repeated rotations of the vertebra (twisting motions of the spine) put athletes at increased risk. Sports such as high-load swimming, baseball, gymnastics, and soccer are particularly problematic.

Heredity is also a major factor for DDD. This condition tends to occur in families. More than half of all cases of DDD in the upper lumbar spine (L1-2, L2-3) have a hereditary component. And about one-third of the DDD in lower lumbar levels (L345) can be accounted for through heredity.

Although the evidence is still controversial, there are some experts who think obesity can be linked to DDD. Highly skilled athletes aren't usually obese, but their body mass index (BMI) (calculated using height and weight) is often greater than nonathletes.

In one study from Japan, a group of athletes with DDD were compared with another (control) group of nonathletes. The athletes had both higher BMIs and a higher incidence of degenerative disc disease.

Mika Hangai, MD, PhD, et al. Lumbar Intervertebral Disk Degeneration in Athletes. In The American Journal of Sports Medicine. January 2009. Vol. 37. No. 1. Pp. 149-155.

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