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Finnish Study Identifies Lifestyle Factors Impacting Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain is one of the most common problems faced by adults in the United States.

It has been estimated that 8 out of every 10 people will experience it to some degree at least once in their life, and many people suffer from chronic lower back pain.

For some of us, the cause of our pain is a known factor: we’ve hurt ourselves in some way and are working to rehabilitate and heal. For others, the cause of pain is a mystery.

A recent study conducted by Rahman Shiri, MD, PhD of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health revealed that smoking, obesity and strenuous physical work are all key factors that increase the risk of experiencing both generalized lower back pain and lumbar radicular pain. It also found that there are specific leisure-time activities that can significantly reduce that risk.

Writing in the journal Arthritis Care & Research, Shiri details the conclusions that his team reached, as well as how they came to their conclusions.

He explains that despite the extensive research that has been done on lower back pain, there had been little conclusive evidence gathered on whether leisure-time physical activity could lower people’s risk of experiencing lower back pain.

The team used data gathered in two previously conducted studies and examined them closely, arriving at observations that could represent practical advice on changes that people can make to improve their quality of life.

Summing up the study’s findings, Shiri wrote, “Obesity increases the risk of low back pain, whereas walking and cycling to work reduce the risk of low back pain, particularly chronic low back pain. The largest protective effects of walking or cycling to work against low back pain are seen in non-obese individuals and in those who are not exposed to physical workloads. Walking and cycling to work are regular low-level physical activities that do not strain the lower back. Walking and cycling can be recommended for the prevention of low back pain in the general population.”

The researchers used two Finnish population-based surveys The Health 2000 Survey and the Health 2011 Survey, which provided the advantage of having followed the same group of participants.

The first study collected health, work and lifestyle data from 7,977 adults over the age of 30 through interviews, surveys, lab and functional capacity tests and clinical examinations, while the second recorded data from roughly half of that same group of adults 10 years later.

Though roughly 250 of the group had to be eliminated based on a specific health diagnosis back at the time of the original study having been conducted, the others were all able to be used to determine whether lifestyle factors had increased or reduced their chances of lower back pain over the years.

What the researchers found was that there were certain characteristics – notably age and gender – that had a consistent impact on the incidence of pain: for instance, women were more likely to have both back pain than men, and lower back pain risk went down as people got older but the risk of pain caused by degenerative disc disease went up.

The most actionable information that the group gathered had to do with specific, controllable aspects of lifestyle that had an impact on back pain risk. The researchers found that when people smoked, were obese, or were responsible for highly strenuous work they were more likely to experience lumbar back pain, but that if they walked or cycled to work it offset that effect.