Local teens live with spinal fractures
Omaha World Herald - Live Well - Health & Medicine
Published Monday March 5, 2012
Written by Bill Hord

Three teenage athletes living on the same block in northwest Omaha competed at different schools, on different teams and in different age groups.

But all three suffered a similar injury during the past two-and-a-half years fractures to the spine.

All three young neighbors wore body braces for three months to allow the stress fractures in part of their lower spine to heal.

The neighbors temporarily avoided training and competition. One had surgery. All three said they will never again do squat lifts in the weight room an exercise one local doctor has linked to such injuries in a recent study.

The three similar injuries to three neighborhood friends call attention to an injury that's becoming more common among teen athletes in Omaha and everywhere else youth sports are played at an intense level, said Dr. John McClellan III, a spine surgeon at the Nebraska Spine Center in Omaha.

“The causes are too much stress on bodies that have immature, soft bone,” said McClellan, who treated two of the neighbor teens. “Sometimes it's a sudden injury, but mostly it's boys and girls . . . doing eight to 10 hours per week of sports maybe more.”

The adolescent back issues have been documented for decades, but the current emphasis on year-round sports and on playing more than one sport at a time is increasing the problem, said Dr. James Devney, an Omaha orthopedic specialist who treated one of the neighborhood friends. He is affiliated with the Nebraska Spine Hospital in Omaha.

The spine fractures, especially when undiagnosed, are setting up today's teens for back pain that could plague them in the future, said McClellan and Devney.

The condition can lead to narrowing of nerve canals and result in leg pain, numbness and weakness.

Devney cited studies indicating that such lower lumbar stress fractures [--] technically known as spondylolysis affect between 25 percent and 35 percent of athletes participating in high-risk sports, including football and gymnastics.

Two of the three neighborhood teens [--] Brandon Alby, 19, and Conner Walz, 17 took time off from sports. After healing, they resumed modified training and competition.

Alby, now a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, sat out his junior year of high school football while wearing the brace, but returned as a starting linebacker for the 2010 state championship Millard North football team.

“Wearing the brace was hot and miserable,” Alby said.

After healing, Alby substituted less demanding exercises for risky weight room lifts such as squats, dead lifts and power cleans.

Walz, injured within the past year, stayed out of competition for more than 10 weeks but is looking forward to baseball tryouts at Omaha Creighton Prep.

“Wearing the brace wasn't fun, but it did its job,” Walz said.

The third neighbor -- Alexa Hord, 14 required surgery to install a supportive screw through a vertebra. She is healing and awaiting her doctor's OK before resuming basketball, volleyball, soccer and track.

The worst pain, Hord said, came when nurses rolled her from side to side after surgery. The worst thing about the brace: “I couldn't wear all my clothes.”

McClellan, who has studied injuries to adolescent athletes for more than 14 years, is on a mission to educate parents and the athletic and health care communities about the risks of extreme training.

In November, McClellan presented research to the North American Spine Society indicating that squat exercises put the spine in positions that could lead to stress fractures.

McClellan advises parents to temper youth sports activity to avoid wearing down their children's bodies.

“If you work them hard enough that the bone breaks and they hurt two months later, what else is injured?” McClellan said. “Is this child going to have worn discs by the age of 30? Are they going to have widespread arthritis by the age of 40?”

McClellan and Devney said the education process is difficult.

“There has to be a willingness to modify our risk factors,” Devney said. “Some are not really willing to modify training and lifting techniques.”

Devney said young spines are at greatest risk during activities that involve bending backward or twisting at the waist while bearing weight.

Sports where such activities are common include football, gymnastics, wrestling, power lifting, volleyball and basketball.

“The common denominator is trunk extension,” Devney said.

McClellan said research at the Nebraska Spine Center indicates that about 80 percent of his surgical patients are short of vitamin D3, which helps the body use calcium.

“When you run and sweat, a lot of what you are sweating is calcium,” McClellan said. He recommends supplements of calcium and vitamin D3 to help young athletes prevent and heal bone injuries.

McClellan said Nebraska Spine Center has treated more than 600 kids who have spinal stress fractures.

“The reason I'm so passionate about it,” McClellan said, “is that there are so many kids being harmed every day by it.”

Alexa Hord, one of the young athletes mentioned in this story, is the granddaughter of author Bill Hord, a retired World-Herald staff writer.

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