Spinal injuries and symptoms were studied in 109 ex-military parachutists and 112 sport (free fall) parachutists by means of postal questionnaires. 46 ex-military parachutists aged 50 years or over had a radiological examination of the lumbar spine and 58 sport parachutists had a radiological examination of the cervical spine as part of the survey. A history of back pain was significantly (P<0.01) associated with body weight in sport parachutists but not with the number of descents or with the subject's age. In the older ex-military group neither age, weight, nor the number of descents was significantly associated with backache.
Of those ex-military parachutists x-rayed, 10 (21·7%) were found to have vertebral body fractures (most frequently at D12), and 8 of these were unaware of these lesions. Vertebral fractures caused no disability and did not permanently curtail parachuting activities in either the sport or ex-military group.
Of the ex-military parachutists x-rayed, 84·7% had lumbar disc degeneration of all grades of severity, 17·4% had moderate changes, and 10·8% had severe changes. The frequency of moderate and severe disc degeneration was significantly related to age but not to body weight or to the number of descents. Spondylolysis was found in 2 subjects (4·3%) and spondylolisthesis unassociated with spondylolysis in 4 (8·7%). Spondylolisthesis was always associated with a history of back pain.
A low prevalence of radiological cervical intervertebral disc degeneration of all grades of severity of 8·7% was found among the free fall parachutists (mean age 33 years). 2 cases of cervical vertebral body fracture were seen, one related to a parachute landing injury and the other to a parachute opening injury.
This study does not implicate parachuting as a cause of intervertebral disc degeneration, either cervical or lumbar, nor as a cause of spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis. Serious long-term disability from pain appears to be uncommon among parachutists despite the frequency of the spinal trauma they sustain.
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