To assess genetic and environmental influences on low back and neck pain in a classic twin design and to examine the extent to which these are explained by structural changes seen on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and psychological and lifestyle variables.
The subjects comprised 1,064 unselected women (181 monozygotic [MZ] and 351 dizygotic [DZ] twin pairs) recruited from a national registry of twin volunteers. Outcome measures included lifetime history of low back and neck pain (using a range of increasingly stringent definitions), MRI scores of disc degeneration in the lumbar and cervical spine, psychological distress as assessed by the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), and lifestyle variables assessed by questionnaire.
For all definitions of pain, there was a consistent excess concordance in MZ when compared with DZ twins, equating to a heritability for low back pain in the range of 52–68% and for neck pain in the range of 35–58%. The strongest associations were between low back pain and MRI change (odds ratio [OR] 3.6, 95% confidence interval [95% CI] 1.8–7.3]) and between neck pain and response on the GHQ (OR 3.3, 95% CI 2.1–5.0). These associations were mediated genetically.
Genetic factors have an important influence on back and neck pain reporting in women. These factors include the genetic determinants of structural disc degeneration and an individual's inherited tendency toward psychological distress. MRI changes are the strongest predictor of low back pain.