Back pain is so common that 80 percent of the population experiences it at some point in life. While most people recover from their backache within a day or two, some people suffer with chronic back pain that in some cases is disabling. Now, scientists are discovering, that chronic lower back pain may be hereditary. Is your backache all in your genes?

Lumbar Disc Degeneration (LDD) is a common source of chronic low back pain. The lumbar discs (located at approximately waist level in the spine and below) serve to cushion your vertebrae (the bony parts of the spine). With LDD, these discs dehydrate and degenerate over time. As these discs compress, the vertebrae they no longer cushion and protect grow bone spurs. Disc compression and bone spurs can both cause pain. Some doctors say LDD is inevitable as the body ages, though not everyone who gets LDD experiences pain.

According to a study recently published in the journal, The Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, serious LDD is inherited in 65 to 80 percent of cases. The search for what causes LDD has been ongoing for decades. Scandinavian studies from the 70s and 80s were designed to find occupations that directly caused back pain, though scientists conducting this research were unable to make that direct backache connection. Later, researchers studied identical twins that went into different occupations and demonstrated that regardless of occupation, in cases where one twin developed LDD, the other almost always did too. For example, even when one twin lived an active life and the other a sedentary one both were at equal risk for developing LDD.

More recent research studied the diagnostic imaging and genome series of 4600 individuals and determined there was a genetic variant in the Park2 gene that explained lower back pain's familial connection. They then determined that in the majority of cases, serious LDD is hereditary.

Does that mean there's nothing you can do to avoid it? Not at all. Doctors aren't able to determine at this point, which patients will and won't get LDD and can't use this new genetic information yet to customize treatment plans. They do know, however, that certain risk factors increase everyone's chances for getting LDD including, smoking, weight gain, poor diet and a sedentary life style. While we might not be able to change our genomes, all of these lifestyle factors are under our direct control. If we know that LDD runs in our families, we can reduce our chances of developing it ourselves by focusing on good nutrition, maintaining a health weight, getting adequate amounts of exercise and avoiding smoking.

Whether it's in your genes or not, if you're experiencing chronic low back pain, ask your doctor what you can do to improve your diet and exercise program and take control of your own health.

Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR reviewed this article.




The Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases
Ann Rheum Dis 

Published Online First 19 September 2012

Novel genetic variants associated with lumbar disc degeneration in northern Europeans: a meta-analysis of 4600 subjects

Frances M K Williams, Aruna T Bansal, Joyce B van Meurs, Jordana T Bell, Ingrid Meulenbelt, Pradeep Suri, Fernando Rivadeneira, Philip N Sambrook, Albert Hofman, Sita Bierma-Zeinstra, Cristina Menni , Margreet Kloppenburg, P Eline Slagboom, David J Hunter, Alex J MacGregor, Andre G Uitterlinden, Tim D Spector