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Low Back Pain: Is It Genetic?

Lower back pain is one of the most common reasons for a visit to the doctor in this country, and it's estimated that upward of 6% of the US population is affected. If you think that it might run in your family, you could be right.

Lower back pain, sciatica--whatever you call it, if you have ever had it you know it well. It is a sharp pain in the low back that can travel down the rear and into the backs of the legs. Very often the cause is a slipped disk, and a new study out this morning in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that low back pain does indeed run in families and that some people are genetically predisposed to getting slipped disks.

Looking at families in Finland, researchers found that almost 25% of people with disk problems had a mutation in a gene that helps strengthen the disk. Those people who carry the mutated gene are at a much greater risk of developing low back pain than those without the mutation.

Dr. Emily Senay is here to answer some common questions.

If you have the gene does that mean it's inevitable that you're going to get back pain?

It means you are at much greater risk, and if you don't take steps to prevent it then you are playing with fire. But what is reassuring is that very often people think this type of pain is the result of something they did wrong, or that it just came out to the blue with no explanation. But there is a good explanation if you are genetically predisposed.

If 25% of the people had the genetic mutation, what about the other 75%--what caused their low back pain?

What researchers believe is that there are most likely several gene mutations, and they are now actively looking for others to explain the problem. So I am sure we are going to be hearing more about this and learning about additional mutations that explain this problem.

Should people with back pain in their family get a test for the gene?

That is a good question. This test could be very useful in helping diagnose low back pain, which is a diagnostic dilemma at best. Very often MRIs are not sensitive enough to show a problem with the disk, even if a person has the classic symptoms of sciatica. If you can use a genetic test, you are going to be able to make a more accurate diagnosis. I suspect that this will become a test that is done to help diagnose low back pain.

If you have the gene, does that mean you can take steps to prevent the problems?

Yes. You can take steps to decrease your risk of a slipped disk.

The answers include addressing many of the usual suspects: like maintaining a healthy weight and exercising your back muscles moderately, but avoiding weight lifting or extreme sports. Smoking is also a risk factor. You could also choose a job that doesn't involve heavy lifting or driving long distances--both of which are risk factors.

Why does smoking raise your risk of ack pain?

Seems like no matter what the disease, we also say not to smoke. But it is not gratuitous here. Smoking is believed to affect small blood vessels, blocking blood flow and preventing nutrients and oxygen from getting into the disk--making it more susceptible to injury.

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