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Bony stress in the lumbar spine is associated with intervertebral disc degeneration and low back pain: a retrospective case–control MRI study of patients under 25 years of age

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Abnormal stress in the lumbar vertebra, also known as bony stress, can be a precursor to degenerative changes which may manifest as low back pain (LBP). However, the prevalence of bony stress in the lumbar spine and its relationship with degenerative changes and LBP is unclear. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the prevalence of bony stress in the lumbar spine and its relationship with intervertebral disc (IVD) degeneration, facet osteoarthritis and LBP in patients under 25 years of age.


A retrospective case–control study of 130 patients under 25 years of age was conducted from a population of 493 patients who had lumbar MRI across three imaging centres over three years. A cohort of 55 consecutive patients with bony stress was identified. A control group of consecutive patients (n = 75) without bony stress was also selected from the population.


Bony stress was prevalent in 11% (95% CI [8.4–14.5%]) of patients and was not diagnosed in 36% (95% CI [22–55%]) of these cases. Patients with bony stress had over twofold (OR 2.3, 95% CI [1.1–4.8]) and fivefold (OR 5.3, 95% CI [2.11–13.3]) higher likelihood of having IVD degeneration and LBP, respectively, when compared with the control group. Bony stress was not found to be associated with facet osteoarthritis.


Bony stress in the lumbar spine was prevalent in 11% of patients under 25 years of age. It was commonly undiagnosed in radiology reports (not reported in 36% of the cases). Being significantly associated and with an increased likelihood of IVD degeneration and LBP, we posit that bony stress is likely a symptomatic and clinically meaningful diagnostic entity in the assessment of LBP.

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The authors thank Sue Pohlmann at St. George MRI and Healthcare Imaging for providing logistical support and access to de-identified patient MRI data, Ritin Fernandes and Laura Ellwood at the Centre for Research in Nursing and Health for advice on statistical analyses and valuable inputs on this manuscript.


This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship and a University Postgraduate Award to KS, a National Health and Medical Research Council Australia Career Development Fellowship (GNT1123014) to DS, and internal research funds from Spine Service.

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Correspondence to Uphar Chamoli.

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Ethical approval was obtained from the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of NSW (NRR-HC180423) prior to conducting this study.

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Chepurin, D., Chamoli, U., Sheldrick, K. et al. Bony stress in the lumbar spine is associated with intervertebral disc degeneration and low back pain: a retrospective case–control MRI study of patients under 25 years of age. Eur Spine J 28, 2470–2477 (2019).

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