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Can you catch a bad back?

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."

Ends

For further information please call 0121 204 4549 or email: b.a.l.coombes@aston.ac.uk

• 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

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