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Former rugby players tend to suffer greater degeneration of the cervical spine, according to a French study.

Researchers used clinical examinations and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies to determine whether retired professional rugby players experience more serious symptoms of cervical spine degeneration than people in the general population.

They recruited 101 retired rugby players and 85 volunteers who had never played competitive rugby or any other sport at a professional level. Spine symptoms were evaluated 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.

Results showed that significantly more former rugby players than controls complained of chronic neck pain (50.5% vs. 31.8%). Rugby players also had significantly reduced neck mobility. However, when these symptoms were evaluated using a neck pain visual analogue scale and the Neck Disability Index, there was no statistically significant difference in the level of pain reported by the two groups.

Looking at the MRI studies, the 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) in comparison to volunteers in the control group.

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 suggested that the stronger paraspinal muscles found in former rugby players may aid in controlling the level of spinal pain in this group.

The former rugby players had undergone significantly more surgeries for degenerative spine conditions (ten cases vs. none for the volunteers). In all ten surgical cases the operation was performed for disc herniation and radiculopathy, and in nine of the cases surgery was performed during the rugby players´ professional careers.

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

Reporting their findings in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine, the researchers concluded that former professional rugby players seem to have more frequent cervical spine pain and MRI degenerative lesions, compared with controls who had not been professional rugby players. But they said that a longer evaluation is necessary to determine whether these findings persist over time or if the disease stabilises with the end of rugby activity.