Did We Inherit Our Bad Backs? GOOD HEALTH/ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

Byline: SIMON CROMPTON

GEMMA BROADBENT was just 12 when her back first seized up. It was during a netball game two years ago, and the trouble has continued ever since.

Three months ago, her back locked when she bent to pick up her school bag.

She went into such severe spasm that when her mother and grandfather came to collect her from school, she had to be pushed to the car in a wheelchair.

Gemma bravely tried to make light of it. 'Look what I've done, Grandad,' she laughed. But her mother Dee didn't see much to laugh about: to her it was like history repeating itself.

Gemma's brother Steve had back pain throughout his school years and it continues now he is at university. Their father Paul, an AA repairman, regularly stiffens up with back ache. And Dee herself has just recovered from 18 months of 'hell' with a prolapsed disc. Dee's own father, formerly a bus driver, has suffered back pain for most of his life.

Dee, a nurse, sees no reason why her young daughter should have to go through what the rest of the family has endured. She blames schools for encouraging the habits which can cause damage to young backs, and so storing up problems for the future.

'Gemma's school bag must weigh as much as two large bags of potatoes,' says Dee. 'And the desks Steve was using at the age of 16 were designed for 11-year-olds, so he was always hunched when he worked. Now he has curvature of the upper spine.' New research, however, indicates that families like the Broadbents might not just be the victims of bad luck and society's poor awareness of back health. Bad backs could be in their genes.

Half of all children will have had back discomfort by the age of 14, and by the age of 30 nearly half of us report having had 'significant' back pain.

FOR MOST, this is the result of wear and tear to muscles caused by poor workplace design, long periods working in fixed positions, unsupportive car seating and bad lifting methods. And with a combination of rest, exercise and painkillers, these cases usually clear up in a week or so.

But around 33 pc of adults become long-term back pain sufferers.

According to Dr Tim Spector, director of the Twin Research Unit at St Thomas's Hospital, London, one of the commonest causes of long-term neck and back pain is a worn-out disc between the back's vertebrae. He has discovered that identical twins often had worn-out discs in exactly the same position in the spine, and that genes account for 60 pc of the risk of developing arthritic discs.

'We found a strong genetic contribution to degeneration of the disc and arthritis of the spine,' says Dr Spector. 'And if there is a genetic contribution, there will be a family risk.' Some relatively uncommon back conditions, such as the disease ankylosing spondylitis, have already been linked to a particular gene, and it is known that a susceptibility to that condition is passed on through generations.

Dr Spector's research suggests a similar inherited factor for less serious back trouble.

However, it is likely that disc disorders will not be linked with a single gene - 'It will be more complicated than that,' says Dr Spector.

He believes his research is the first to look in detail at the genetic causes of back pain, but other new studies may help us understand why some families are affected by back pain. …