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Is Your Back Pain Genetic?

Could your genes be responsible for the pain in your back?

There are many causes of back pain. Injuries, bad posture and disease account for some of these, but other causes may be linked to genetic sources.

Lower back pain is an especially common symptom experienced as we get older. Just as most people will need glasses for reading beyond 40 -50 years of age, lumbar disc degeneration (LDD) is a factor in lower back pain for a large proportion of the population as they get older.

The discs between the vertebrae that form your spine will dehydrate and lose height when proper motion is lost over long periods of time. To stay healthy, discs need proper motion of the vertebrae above and below them, and the regular movement that goes with a healthy lifestyle. The bones of the vertebrae themselves can sprout small, bony growths known as osteophytes, or spurs, further reducing movement available, thereby increasing the discomfort that comes from the spine’s decreasing ability to perform its job well.

Of those who suffer chronic lower back pain from LDD, about 65 to 80 per cent have a genetic link that causes them to be more susceptible to the condition. A recent study done by researchers at King’s College London, for the first time points to a genetic source for the degeneration of intervertebral lumbar discs in aging adults.

The study of 4,600 volunteers used MRI technology and genome association data to determine that a gene called PARK2 was implicated as a back pain culprit.

Dr. Frances Williams, Senior Lecturer from the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, said: “We have identified a gene called PARK2 as associated with lumbar disc degeneration (LDD). We have performed, using data collected from around the world, the biggest genome-wide association analysis of LDD. We know that people whose discs wear out are at increased risk of episodes of lower back pain, but normal human discs are hard to get hold of to study so until now our knowledge of normal human biology was incomplete.”

Basically, what this means is that there is now have pretty conclusive, scientific evidence that your genes play a role in LDD. Virtually everyone will suffer from a certain level of LDD if they live long enough, but the rate at which LDD occurs varies greatly from person to person. It is thought that those with a more rapid rate of degeneration (which most likely means more back pain) are probably genetically disposed to this condition. Another explanation related to epigenetics is that your genetic expression is greatly modified by your lifestyle. In the case of LDD, those who maintain proper spinal motion (for example, through regular chiropractic care), and move their spine regularly throughout the day will have greatly reduced severity of LDD, even if they are genetically predisposed.

The Complex Relationship Between LDD and Back Pain

The relationship between LDD and back pain is a complex one. Whereas, almost everyone will experience disc degeneration to some degree, not everyone will experience back pain. Many people that have significant LDD do not have back pain, and vice versa.

However, the more severe the LDD, the higher the chances of suffering from chronic lower back pain. Therefore, the discovery of a genetic link to LDD may be another step forward in our understanding of chronic lower back pain.

It was believed for a long time, that external factors were solely to blame for LDD. It seemed logical that people with work that was hard on the back would suffer in higher numbers than those whose occupations were easier on the spine.

“In the 70s and 80s the Scandinavians spent millions looking for all the occupations which caused back pain, but they couldn’t find them,” Dr. Williams said. For example, studies of identical twins that went into completely different occupations would both develop LDD later in life. It was impossible to implicate external factors as a definitive cause, thus leading scientists to suspect a genetic source. Interestingly, at this point, loads on the lumbar spine from simple activities such as sitting, and bending to brush your teeth were not fully understood. One of the reasons that differences in occupations may not have been found is that it is often what you do outside of your workplace that makes a difference. Those who sit all day at the office will experience similar loads on their spine as manual workers. The differentiating factor may be how well you move when brushing teeth, washing dishes, getting something out of the boot of the car, etc.

There is also evidence that the PARK2 gene has an on and off switch. This really is the basis of epigenetics – the lifestyle factors that modify genetic expression, or ‘switch’ them on and off. Put simply, your genes are programmed to allow your body to respond in a certain way to environmental input. Change the input, and you change your genetic expression. Chiropractic care alters the afferent (incoming) input into the nervous system, thereby altering genetic expression. Other changes, such as diet, exercise and postural hygiene (hygiene means habits that make you healthy) will also alter genetic expression (the best examples of this are for cancer and heart disease). 

Lower Back Pain Solution

So, if your lower back pain is influenced by an inherited genetic condition, what can you do?

The best thing to do is to go see a back pain specialist. The professionals at Canberra Spine Centre can give you a complete spinal examination to narrow down the possible causes of your back pain and recommend treatment.

Remember that lower back pain and LDD are not always related. There are many other factors that can be the cause of back pain. To determine the cause or causes, and the appropriate treatment for the pain requires extensive knowledge of the spine and experience to properly deal with it. Your chiropractor can not only help you function better through a properly functioning spine and nervous system, but also help with tailored lifestyle advise to maximize your health and genetic expression.

If you suffer from lower back pain associated with genetically induced LDD, Canberra Spine Centre can develop a holistic treatment strategy custom designed to best meet your needs and to manage your conditions.

Book online or call us on (02) 6257 9400.