We all suffer from a few aches and pains from time to time, but for many of us, back pain can be a crippling part of daily life.
Until now, the only solution for back pain has been surgery. In most cases, a minor operation can relieve the inflammation and discomfort caused by a slipped disc. But, in extreme cases where sufferers feel pain all day and night, major operations to fuse damaged vertebrae or have artificial discs implanted may be needed.
However, a discovery by Danish researchers, that spinal surgeons are hailing Nobel Prize worthy, may revolutionise the way we treat back pain.
The study’s findings, a culmination of 10 years of hard work by scientists at the university of South Denmark, uncovered the cause of many of the worst cases of back pain: bacterial infections.
Specialists have long known that infections can be the cause of some back pain, but new research has revealed it is responsible for 20 to 40 per cent of all chronic lower back pain.
The discovery will mean that millions of sufferers will no longer have to endure unrelenting back pain or be faced with expensive major surgery, but instead could be cured with a round of everyday antibiotics.
“This is vast. We are talking about probably half of all spinal surgery for back pain being replaced by taking antibiotics,” remarked Peter Hamlyn, a spinal surgeon from the University College London hospital.
The study, published this week in the European Spine Journal, explained how bacterial infections inside slipped discs were the cause of painful inflammation and fractures to the surrounding vertebrae.
After examining tissue removed from chronic back patients, the researchers found more than 80 per cent tested positive for the bug Propionibacterium acnes – better known for causing acne.
The bug tends to lurk around the roots of hair and in crevices of our mouth and teeth, where they can often make their way into our bloodstream during tooth brushing. Ordinarily they aren’t cause for concern, but this changes when someone suffers a slipped disc. In this case, the bacterium makes its way inside the damaged area, causing inflammation and further damage to neighbouring vertebrae.
But the Danish researchers proved they could cure this bacteria, causing pain with a 100-day course of antibiotics. Their trial successfully reduced pain in 80 per cent of sufferers, who had been in pain for more than 6 months and displayed signs of damaged vertebrae under MRI scans.
The study’s lead researcher, Dr Hanne Albert, was quick to caution that antibiotics will not work in 100 per cent of all back pain cases.
Over-use of the drugs to treat back pain could also lead to more antibiotic resistant bacteria – already a major problem in many hospitals.
“We have to spread the word to the public, and to educate the clinicians, so the right people get the right treatment, and in five years’ time are not having unnecessary surgery,” Albert stressed.