Can Your Genes Cause Back Pain?

Question: Does back pain run in families? I'm 23, and I have chronic low back pain, and so do my mother, grandmother, and brother. None of us has been diagnosed with a spine condition. I'm wondering if there is some genetic link or if it's just a coincidence that we all have back pain.
Houston, TX

The Words "Family Tree" with outlines of 4 people in word cloudsAnswer: Back pain is an extremely common problem, and it's certainly not uncommon that you and some of your family members have back pain. Each year, 13 million people visit the doctor for chronic back pain.1 Although I can't say for sure whether your chronic low back pain is directly associated with your genes, there are several studies to support that there can be a connection between back pain and genetics.

Back pain can be caused by a combination of factors, including your age, your job, your posture, environmental factors—even genetics. In the past, researchers had trouble ruling out environmental factors (eg, stress, smoking, diet) as the only cause of back pain. Today, there is some evidence that shows genetics play an important role in back pain.

A growing number of studies are finding that chronic back pain has a strong genetic link—specifically the development of lumbar degenerative disc disease (a disc-related condition associated with the normal wear and tear process of the spine).

In fact, several twin sibling studies and genetic marker studies have researched this connection. Below are a couple of the studies that stand out in the correlation between back pain and genetics.

Recent Studies on Back Pain and Genetics
The 2009 Twin Spine Study (research for the study actually began in 1991) was a multidisciplinary, multinational research project on the cause of disc degeneration with collaborators primarily in Canada, Finland, and the US. Among the most significant findings was a substantial influence of genetics on lumbar disc degeneration. The study also identified the genes associated with disc degeneration. Although environmental factors play a role, the study found that disc degeneration appears to be significantly determined by genetic influences.2

A 2011 study on genetics and lumbar disc disease found evidence that back pain may in fact run in families. More specifically, symptomatic lumbar disc disease (a condition caused by degeneration or herniated discs in the low back) may be inherited.3 Researchers could not determine the severity of the disease or patients' response to treatment, but this study does suggest that genetics may play an important role. Other important findings from this study include:

  • People who have lumbar disc disease were more likely to have family members with disc disease.
  • The risk of lumbar disc disease was significantly increased in both close and distant relatives.

Research is now underway to identify the specific genes that influence disc degeneration and back pain.

Although you haven't been diagnosed with a spine condition, talk to your doctor about back pain treatments that can work for you. There are some things you can do now (eg, physical therapy) to prevent your back pain—whether it's due to genetics or not—from getting worse.