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Degenerative changes in the disc have long been of interest; they are thought to be strongly associated with low back pain and caused by inappropriate loading or through injury. However, independent of the magnitude of occupational spinal loading, twin studies find that the heritability of lumbar disc degeneration is 34-74%. This finding has led to intensive searches for susceptibility genes; some genes associated with disc degeneration have been identified, though all with small effects on the degenerative process. The complex nature of degenerative changes suggests that many different genes are involved, and that interactions with environmental factors are influential in progression of degeneration. Low back pain itself also appears heritable (30-46%). The most important clinical question though, is not how discs degenerate but is disc degeneration related to low back pain. Imaging studies find many people with degenerate discs or even with discs showing pathological features such as herniations, are asymptomatic. However results are obscured by the lack of consistent definitions of the phenotypes of disc degeneration and of low back pain. Epidemiological studies could help disentangle these complex relationships, but they will only be successful once consistent classifications and phenotypes of both disc degeneration and low back pain are developed.

Original publication




Journal article


J Biomech

Publication Date



Asymptomatic, Low back pain, MRI, Phenotype