Researchers hope the findings can help predict who will be more likely to develop back pain. (Photo: Getty Images)
Across the U.S., an estimated 31 million people are currently suffering from lower back pain. You may be one of them — and it could be due to “an ancestral spine shape,” a new study suggests.
The study, published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, showed that people with herniated discs in the lower back are more likely to have spines that resemble chimpanzees, our closest primate ancestors.
These people have a small lesion or depression called a Schmorl’s node, says study researcher Kimberly Plomp, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. This Schmorl’s node occurs in the disc between the vertebrae and places stress on the lower back, making these individuals more prone to back pain from having to walk upright.
“One of the main functions of the spine is to buttress the body, so if some people have spines that are closer in shape to those of chimpanzees, they may not have the same resistance to bipedalism,” Plomp tells Yahoo Health.
While walking upright on two legs gave human beings a clear advantage over other species, it also put undue stress on the body, the spine in particular, says Keith Dobney, chair of human palaeoecology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
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“Everything about our structure had to change when we started walking upright, including our backs,” he tells Yahoo Health. “All human beings walk upright, of course, and we have evolved over millions of years into the species that we are today, but tiny variations of the spine seem to differentiate people.”
Those differentiations could make some people more prone to back pain than others.
For the study, researchers examined post-medieval human skeletons from England and skeletons of chimpanzees and orangutans from museums including the Smithsonian. They established that human vertebrae with intervertebral disc herniation are identical to those of chimpanzees, and when compared to healthy humans, pathological human and chimpanzee vertebrae tend to have smaller neural foramina, shorter and wider pedicles, and more shovel-shaped vertebral bodies.
Plomp, Dobney, and their fellow researchers are hoping the study can set the stage for further research using evolutionary biology to bring light to problems in medicine and public health.
“We can use studies like this one as predictive tools to figure out who are the people that will develop back pain in their lives,” Dobney says. “Lower back pain typically occurs in middle-aged and older people, so the earlier we’re able to tell from the shape of the spine who’s likely to get it, the more helpful that will be in identifying people who are more at risk.”
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