10 July 2001
Can you catch a bad back?
TWO fifths of British adults have experienced back pain in the past year and it is one of the largest causes of work absence in the UK. Now, a collaborative project between researchers at Aston University, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital and The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham have carried out a successful study to find out if some back pain may be caused by a bacterial infection.
Samples of vertebral discs from patients already undergoing surgery for unremitting back pain and sciatica were tested for micro-organisms using a range of molecular and immunological techniques.
The results show that a significant proportion of patients with sciatica (19 out of 36 tested) appeared to be infected with the same micro-organism that causes acne (Propionibacterium acnes), a relatively benign bacteria that can be found on most people's skin.
Further research is planned to find out exactly how the microorganisms contribute to back pain; how they gain access to the spinal disc (possibly after a minor injury, thereby initiating or stimulating a chronic inflammatory response that leads to pain); and how medical treatment might be affected in the future.
Dr Peter Lambert from Aston University said: "This is probably the most exciting project that I have ever worked on, it is wonderful to have discovered that microorganisms are involved with sciatica, a common and extremely painful condition."
Prof Tom Elliott from University Hospital, Birmingham added: "To make a discovery like this is very pleasing and exciting. It has been a lot of hard work for the team and has really shown the importance of collaboration between the NHS and universities in research."
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• Note to editors: The paper 'Associations between sciatica and Propionibacterium acnes' appeared in The Lancet Volume 357, number 9273, 23 June 2001 and was written by A Stirling and M Rafiq (Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, Birmingham), T Worthington and Prof TSJ Elliot (University Hospital, Birmingham) and P Lambert DSc (Aston University).
• The study was funded by BackCare and the National Back Pain Association www.backpain.org.uk