Training can damage spines of young tennis players: study

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Young, elite tennis players who undergo intensive training in the fervent hope of becoming the next Roger Federer or Serena Williams may be more vulnerable to spinal injury than previously believed, new research suggests.

TORONTO (CP) - Young, elite tennis players who undergo intensive training in the fervent hope of becoming the next Roger Federer or Serena Williams may be more vulnerable to spinal injury than previously believed, new research suggests.

A ''surprising'' number of spinal abnormalities, some irreparable, were found in the lower backs of young tennis players who had no history of back pain, say the authors of an article to be published Thursday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The research found problems in 28 of the 33 players aged 16 to 23, all of them recruited from a national tennis centre, who were scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. The abnormalities included spinal disc degeneration, herniated discs, complete fractures and stress fractures known as pars lesions.

''We were surprised to find a number of abnormalities in their lower back, certainly the type of abnormalities or the number of abnormalities we'd expect to see in an older patient, perhaps a 40-year-old or 50-year-old patient,'' said one of the authors, Dr. David Connell of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, England, in the greater London area.

''It's surprising to see them in 15- and 16-year-olds.''

Early signs of disease in the facet joints, which help the spine bend backwards, were found in 23 players, a rate four or five times higher than that of the general population. It also caused moderate permanent degeneration in nine of the 23 players.

The spinal discs of 13 players were drying out due to insufficient lubrication and were bulging in another 13, the research showed, while 24 had bone overgrowth.

Lower-back injuries are the third most common type of tennis-related injury after those to the lower and upper limbs, such as elbows or shoulders. Tennis stars such as Andre Agassi, Lindsay Davenport and Roger Federer have all suffered from back problems.

Still, young athletes are spending more time playing and training because their chances of success as a professional tennis player are linked to their junior career performance, say the article's authors. Such repetitive, strenuous and intense training during the growth spurt is believed to play a role in the increased incidence of injury and damage to muscles and bones.

Some young Canadian players will spend upwards of 20 to 25 hours a week on the tennis court, said Michael Mitchell, the head coach of the varsity tennis teams at Toronto's York University and a former Canadian men's over-35 doubles champion.

''The challenge with the juniors is that they'll train during the week, and then over the course of the weekend, they'll go out and play these competitive weekend tournaments, and then basically turn around and do the exact same cycle again the next week,'' Mitchell said.

''And a lot of the times, they don't allow enough of a recovery period after a serious weekend of playing.''

In such cases, athletes need to be selective in their training and in choosing tournaments over the following week to prevent injuries from persisting over time, he added.

Trouble is, said Mitchell, tennis is no longer a seasonal sport in Canada and qualifying for major events has become more arduous.

Junior Canadian tennis players often compete through the winter months to qualify for winter nationals, followed by spring tournaments and summer nationals. Once they graduate to the next age category, the cycle begins again to accumulate ranking points. The pattern only breaks when they graduate out of junior-level tennis and don't have to maintain their ranking based on their age category each year.

It's also difficult to take a weekend off when there are so many tournaments and requirements to qualify for provincial and national events, said Mitchell, who reported seeing some children who have played 33 tournaments in a single year, on top of all their training.

''That is just way too much tennis.''

Organizations: British Journal of Sports Medicine, Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, York University

Geographic location: TORONTO, Stanmore, England London Canada

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