Clinical exams and MRI studies performed on former professional rugby players in a new study suggest that pro rugby players may experience more serious symptoms of cervical spine degeneration than those in the general population.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine, according to a news release from Journal of Neurosurgery Publishing Group.

During the study, the release explains, the researchers compared cervical spine symptoms and evidence of injury in two groups of men: 101 who had retired from professional rugby (mean age 40.3 years, range 35 to 47 years) and 85 volunteers who had never participated in competitive rugby or any other sport on the professional level (control group; mean age 41.6 years, range 35 to 49 years).

Participants in the two groups were matched according to age, sex, type of employment, smoking habits, and current sports training. The researchers evaluated spine symptoms in all of the participants and spine MRI findings in a sample of 50 men—25 from the retired rugby player group and 25 from the control group.

Complaints of chronic neck pain and reduced neck mobility were reported significantly more often in the former rugby player group (50.5%) than in the control group (31.8%), the release continues. When these symptoms were evaluated using a neck pain visual analog scale and the Neck Disability Index, however, there was no statistically significant difference in the level of pain reported by the former rugby players and the level of pain reported by the volunteers.

MRI studies focused on anatomical signs of degeneration in the cervical spine as well as on the status of paraspinal muscles. The researchers report that compared to volunteers in the control group, retired rugby players had significantly narrower vertebral canals (which house the spinal cord) and greater foraminal stenosis (narrowing of the foramen through which spinal nerve roots exit the vertebral canal), the release explains.

When the researchers examined study participants’ musculature in the vicinity of the spine, they found that retired rugby players had significantly greater muscle mass (and less fat) than the volunteers. The researchers hypothesize that the stronger paraspinal muscles found in former rugby players may aid in controlling the level of spinal pain in this group.

Retired rugby players had undergone significantly more surgeries for degenerative spine conditions (10 cases [9.9%]) than volunteers (no cases). In all 10 surgical cases, the operation was performed for disc herniation and radiculopathy, and in nine cases, surgery was performed during the rugby players’ professional careers, the release explains.

The researchers note in the release that most of the former players returned to play after surgery, “indicating that spine surgery does not completely prohibit contact sports in professional athletes.”

“A few years after the end of their careers, professional rugby players seem to have more degenerative symptoms and lesions on the cervical spine,” lead author David Brauge, MD, says in the release.

“These symptoms are exceptionally disabling (three of 101 cases in this study). Our definitive conclusion should be reasonably prudent; we still can’t assert that the lesions worsen with time or that the disease stabilizes with the end of the rugby activity,” he continues.

[Source(s): Journal of Neurosurgery Publishing Group; Science Daily]