Back Pain

Updated 06 July 2015

How genes give you a bad back

Your genetic make-up is the most definitive factor when it comes to back problems.


Your genetic make-up is by far the most definitive factor when it comes to determining whether you’ll develop back problems. Genes determine how quickly the discs between your vertebrae wear away.

It’s the gel inside a disc’s cartilage that makes your back and neck flexible and mobile. As the cartilage wears away, the gel can ultimately disappear completely.

In some families, deterioration can start at an early age. The weakened disc can then displace and press on a nerve. This is called a slipped disc. The pressure results in severe leg or arm pain or can even cause those limbs to go numb.

Reasons for our back problems
We’re overweight and inactive. We also live longer, which means there’s more time for wear and tear and therefore deterioration of all joints, including vertebrae. People with arthritis or osteoporosis, as well as smokers, are more prone to back problems.

But the greatest cause of back trouble is one’s genetic make-up, says neurosurgeon Dr Gerrit Coetzee. Adds spinal surgeon Dr Pradeep Makan: “Back problems began the moment human beings started to walk on two legs. We aren’t designed to sit or walk upright. Yet many people spend hours sitting in front of a computer or in a car or bus in rush-hour traffic.”

The fact is people who do heavy physical labour or spend long hours sitting – such as long-distance truck drivers – stand a greater chance of developing back problems.

Car accidents, sports injuries (especially in rugby, horse-riding and mountain-biking) and diving accidents are the greatest causes of neck injuries.


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Susan qualified as a Physiotherapist in 1990, and completed her master’s degree in Physiotherapy in 2013 at the University of Pretoria. She has a special interest in human biomechanics, as well as the interaction between domestic and work-related ergonomics.

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