Main factors for lower back pain in women are genes, disc degeneration

Sep 23 2011
Research to find the main causes of lower back pain in women concluded not only that degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine was the leading factor, but that a woman's weight and genes may also contribute.

The spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body and is protected the vertebrae, which are connected by facet joints and the intervertebral discs, which are gel-filled structures that cushion the spaces in between the vertebrae. Eighty percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives, which can happen if any part of the spinal column degenerates because of injury, disease or aging. One example is spinal stenosis, a condition in which the spinal canal narrows because of bone spurs or thickening ligaments, which can put pressure on the surrounding nerves. Other causes include muscle strain or disc herniation, when an intervertebral disc ruptures or bulges out.

Lower back pain can also be caused by degenerative disc disease of the lumbar area. Intervertebral discs are subject to natural wear and tear over time, but there is no universal agreement that this leads to lower back pain. Researchers in London conducted a study weighing several of the risk factors previously associated with lower back pain - obesity, smoking, occupation, physical activity, genes and degenerative disc disease - and published the results in the October print issue of the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

More than 2,200 women between the ages of 18 and 84 participated in the study, including 371 sets of identical twins, 698 sets of fraternal twins, 29 sibling pairs and 60 individual females. Participants answered a questionnaire about lower back pain, and had their lumbar spines imaged through magnetic resonance imaging. Data also factored in other risks, such as weight and smoking.

The results showed that lumbar disc degeneration was the most significant factor determining if a woman develops lower back pain. However, this condition may also be tied to genetics, as subjects who were part of twin sets where both women had degenerative disc disease were also more likely to experience pain. The study also showed that women who were overweight were more likely to have lower back pain than lean individuals.

Further research will be needed to figure out what role genes play in the development of lower back pain. The researchers also caution that their conclusions cannot be applied to men, and that their female subjects tended to have less physically demanding jobs. Also, results may be skewed since the study included younger women to investigate a condition that is largely age-related.

Subjects in this study were enrolled from the TwinsUK program, which was designed to help collect data for research on diseases as they relate to genetic and environmental causes.

There are several ways people can help avoid lower back pain, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Good posture, smoking cessation, maintaining an optimal weight through diet and exercise to strengthen the back muscles, and proper lifting techniques that keep the back straight all support spine health.