Degenerative disc disease is often considered an aging problem. Daily wear and tear of the disc is generally considered the main contributor of degenerative disc disease. Besides age, other known risk factors of degenerative disc disease include injury, smoking, overweight, and other environmental factors. However, in recent years studies have suggested that there might be a link between genes and degenerative disc disease.
In a study 1 conducted in 115 male identical twins, genetic influences were believed to be the primary causes of the disc degeneration. Compared with genetic influences, the environmental factors that are commonly believed to be main risk factors of disc degeneration, such as occupation and leisure physical activities, showed only modest effects on disc degeneration. Results of the study were later confirmed by another similar study 2 conducted in a larger population. According to the later study, disc height and bulge are highly heritable.
Recent studies have already indicated a number of genes that might be associated with degenerative disc disease. In addition to vitamin D receptor, genes coding for collagen (a main component of the disc) have been identified to be associated with degenerative disc disease.
To further identify genes that cause or are linked to degenerative disc disease, multiple clinical studies are currently ongoing. Findings of these studies can help scientists and clinicians develop diagnostic and prognostic tests for degenerative disease, which can further help improve the treatment for the disease.
So, is there a link between genes and degenerative disc disease? The answer is yes. But is it all in the genes? No. As studies have shown, degenerative disc disease is a complex, multifactoral disease. In most cases, it is the result of the complex interactions between heredity, aging, and other environmental factors such as lifestyle. While we cannot choose what to inherit, we can try to slow down the aging process by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and avoid factors (eg, smoking) that are known to be harmful to the health of the disc.
- Battié MC, Videman T, Gibbons LE, et al. 1995 Volvo Award in clinical sciences. Determinants of lumbar disc degeneration. A study relating lifetime exposures and magnetic resonance imaging findings in identical twins. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1995 Dec 15; 20(24):2601-12.
- Sambrook PN, MacGregor AJ, Spector TD. Genetic influences on cervical and lumbar disc degeneration: a magnetic resonance imaging study in twins. Arthritis Rheum. 1999 Feb; 42(2):366-72.