It’s being hailed as a breakthrough in the study of chronic back pain. For the first time, researchers say they have found a link between a gene and a form of lower back pain that affects over a third of middle aged women.
In a study published in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Disease, British scientists identified the PARK2 gene as a possible cause for degeneration of the intervertebral discs in the spine, a common cause of lower back pain.
Lumbar disc degeneration (LDD) is an age-related problem, with over one-third of women aged 30 to 50 having at least one degenerate disc in their spines. The condition occurs when the discs degenerate and become dehydrated, causing a loss of height. The vertebrae next to the discs also develop bony growths called osteophyte.
After looking at the MRI images of more than 4,600 people whose genes had been mapped, scientists found that the PARK2 gene was implicated in people with degenerate discs and could affect the speed at which they deteriorate.
“We have identified a gene called PARK2 as associated with LDD. We have shown that the gene may be switched off in people with the condition.” said one of the study authors, Dr. Frances Williams, a senior lecturer in the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London.
“’We have performed, using data collected from around the world, the biggest genome-wide association analysis of lumbar disc degeneration (LDD). We know that people whose discs wear out are at increased risk of episodes of lower back pain, but normal human discs are hard to get hold of to study so until now our knowledge of normal human biology was incomplete.”
While studies have shown LDD is inherited in up to 80 percent of people with the condition, suggesting that genes play a key role, the genetic cause remained elusive. Researchers say that the results of this study indicate that the PARK2 gene appears not to be working in people with LDD.
Although the team at King’s College London doesn’t fully understand why LDD is triggered by the PARK2 gene, they suspect that it could be influenced by environmental factors, such as lifestyle and diet, which in turn make changes known as epigenetic modifications to the gene.
According to researchers, the implications of this study could be far reaching and may pave the way towards developing new treatments in the future. It is estimated that back pain, one of the most common causes of sick leave among workers, costs the economies of industrialized nations billions of dollars each year.
“Further work by disc researchers to define the role of this gene will, we hope, shed light on one of most important causes of lower back pain,” said Williams.
“It is feasible that if we can build on this finding and improve our knowledge of the condition, we may one day be able to develop new, more effective treatments for back pain caused by this common condition.”