Twin research sheds new light on back pain

30 October 2015

New research node on twins will bring together leading researchers in areas as diverse as dementia and brain ageing, breast cancer, mental health, epigenetics and back pain.

A man's back

Back pain is a condition usually associated with growing older but new research has found it starts much earlier in life and, without early effective treatment, can develop into a chronic condition in adulthood. 

It is also a common and costly condition. Nearly four million people in Australia suffer from low back pain at any one time, and the total cost of treatment exceeds $1 billion a year.

Leading international back pain specialist and twins researcher, Professor Jan Hartvigsen, will be at the University of Sydney this Friday, 30 October to launch NSW’s first twin research hub and to share the findings from his team at the Centre for Muscle and Joint Health, University of Southern Denmark.

In twin studies, his group found that back pain is already common among adolescents and its occurrence increases steeply during the teenage years. He also found this early occurrence of neck and back pain has a strong underlying heritable component.

“Twins with back pain early in life, from around 12 years of age, have a four-fold increased risk of also reporting back pain when they are 30-years-old. It is also very common for twins with back and neck pain to take time off work already in their twenties. This means prevention and early effective treatment is very important if we are to prevent disability increasing into adulthood,” Professor Hartvigsen said.

“Our twin studies suggest there is a real window of opportunity in the teenage years to make a difference and reduce the widespread and often long-term suffering caused by back pain.”

To prevent early neck and back pain problems, Professor Hartvigsen recommends community and school based initiatives to promote physical activity among children and adolescents. He also recommends that children and parents are made aware that it is OK to be active in spite of some back pain. “The back is a strong and built to move and support the body in spite of occasional aches and pains,” he said. 

Professor Hartvigsen is the keynote speaker at the launch of NSW’s first Twin Research Node at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. The node’s aim is to encourage the growth and development of twin research in NSW, and to generate new collaborations to address major health challenges both in Australia and globally.

Low back pain is a global problem - ranked the highest contributor to disability in the world - and has brought together Danish and Australian researchers. Professor Hartvigsen’s team is collaborating with Dr Paulo Ferreira, leader of the back pain research group at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Health Sciences. Together they are aiming to better understand the relationship between people’s physical activity and the occurrence of low back pain.

An initiative of the Charles Perkins Centre and the Australian Twin Registry, the node launch will bring together some of the world’s leading twin and NSW researchers to speak about their latest findings on diverse topics such as dementia and brain ageing, breast cancer, mental health and epigenetics as well as back pain.

According to Professor Stephen Simpson, Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre, twin research is not just about twins.

“Twins provide insights that benefit the health of everyone. They enable researchers to study the impact of genes and the environment so as to better understand what makes us all healthy, and what factors influence susceptibility to disease for all the population.

“This is a unique opportunity for NSW researchers to make their mark globally and the Charles Perkins Centre is delighted to join forces with a world-leading authority on twin research, the Australian Twin Registry,” he said.

With more than 35,000 twin pairs on its database, the ATR is the largest twin-volunteer research registry in the world. Since its inception in 1981, it has participated in over 450 studies Australia-wide including research into cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It is a national Centre for Research Excellence funded by the federal government and based at the University of Melbourne.

“It is exciting that this new twin research hub should be launched in NSW at a time when twin research is coming to the forefront,” said the Director of the Australian Twin Registry, Professor John Hopper.

“With new technology at our fingertips - such as genomics and epigenetics combined with super computing power to analyse large biostatical data - twin research has the potential to contribute transformative insights in our understanding of health and disease."