Body or brain behind back pain?

22nd February 2019

Wooden mannequin with arm on back

Back pain may be caused through the body or through the brain, according to the results of a new genetics study.

The international team, which included researchers from King’s College London, studied the genetic information of over 500,000 people.

They found genetic links between back pain and some of its known risk factors, such as depression, sleep disturbance, obesity and smoking.

Overall, the results highlight the complexity of the genetics behind back pain.

Why did they do this research?

Back pain is very common, and many adults will experience it during their lives. About one in ten people however go on to develop chronic back pain, which can be debilitating and affect people’s quality of life and ability to work.

Previously the team had identified genes linked to chronic back pain. The researchers therefore decided to carry out a much larger study, to get a better understanding of how genes are linked to back pain.

What did the team do?

The researchers used data from two existing research programmes.

The team analysed the genetic data of 509, 070 people who indicated they were experiencing back pain, and examined the links between back pain and known medical and social risk factors.

What did they find?

The team identified two further genes linked with back pain.

The researchers also found genetic links between back pain and depression, sleep disturbance, obesity and smoking, which are known risk factors for back pain.

Based on their findings and further analysis, the researchers proposed two key routes through which back pain may start.

One route was through the vertebrae – disks – that make up the backbone. The other route was through how people perceive and process pain.

What does this mean?

These results support what we currently understand about back pain. The findings will also help researchers and healthcare professionals develop strategies to treat and prevent back pain.

Dr Maxim Freidin, who led the study, explained:

“This study continues our ongoing efforts to identify genes underlying back pain.

“One of the most striking finding is shared genetic component of back pain with many other traits such as obesity, depression and anxiety, social and demographic factors. These traits co-occur with back pain and are considered as its risk factors.

“By identifying shared genetics for back pain and these traits, we provide evidence that this co-occurrence has strong biological ground. In turn, this finding may help identify causal links between back pain and its risk factors.”

Watch the short animation below to find out more about our back pain research.

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