Back Pain Can Be in the Genes

It turns out that family might be a pain in more ways than just at Thanksgiving dinner. There is a growing body of evidence that certain pain may be genetic, including conditions such as sciatica, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis (loss of bone mass), osteomalacia (weakening of the bones), spondylolisthesis (displacement of a vertebra), degenerative disc disease, and scoliosis.

A group of orthopedists from the University of Utah’s School of Medicine analyzed records from the Utah population database, which includes information dating back to early settlers of the Utah Territory, to see if lumbar disc disease, which frequently causes sciatica, ran in families.

Examining the family trees of 1,264 patients, the researchers were able to track instances of lumbar disc disease over several generations. They found that having a close relative increased an individual’s risk of developing the condition by 4 times. Even having a not-so-close relative with the condition increased the odds of an individual developing the condition.

DNA illustration

Causes of Back Pain

Lower back pain is so ubiquitous that one would think everyone has a genetic component. But in many cases, back pain is caused by lifestyle issues — too much sitting, lifting heavy objects the wrong way, and being overweight — or through injury, such as a car accident or playing sports.

But some back pain is caused by internal reasons. Spines are comprised of vertebrae, and the intervertebral discs help cushion these spinal bones. Over time, these discs can degenerate and compress, bulge, or develop small tears, all of which can result in significant lower back pain. Some degeneration of the discs is a natural part of the aging process. It is also progressive, which means it will get worse as people age. But research suggests that lumbar disc degeneration does, in fact, have a genetic component as well that may make the condition even worse than the typical aging process.

Researchers have identified a specific gene they believe may make certain individuals more susceptible to spinal degeneration. Physical therapist Liz Hoobchaak explains, “This gene is important in the proper hydration of certain tissues and is usually found concentrated in the lumbar disc material. Many of these studies also cited that how a person perceives their level of pain can also be affected by genetics. This means that two individuals may have the same level of degeneration in their spine and one may describe a very high level of pain where the other individual reports minimal pain.”

Avoiding Back Trouble

Knowing there can be a genetic component to back health makes it important to know of any health problems experienced by parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. But just because a condition may run in the family doesn’t mean an individual is doomed to a life of back pain if they carry the gene. Knowledge, in this case, is power because people can take steps to protect their spine.

First, exercise so your back and core muscles are strong, which better supports your spine and helps maintain proper posture. Keep your weight under control. Maintain a healthy diet, which reduces inflammation throughout the body. Do not smoke. If you work in an office, make sure to get up and stretch or walk around every half hour. Better yet, get a work station that allows you to stand. And seek regular chiropractic treatments to help keep your spine in top condition and to also relieve stress.

Also, make sure to let your physician and your chiropractor know if you have an increased risk for a condition, because early detection and treatment can help keep pain to a minimum.

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