From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Back Pain Ages Brain Prematurely

Back pain is considered one of the top work-related hazards accounting for one-fifth of all worker’s compensation claims in the United States. It’s the second leading cause of absences following the common cold, it costs employers an estimated $50 billion each year in treatment and productivity, and over 80 percent of us are expected to experience it at some point during our lives. Now researchers also believe that back pain is associated with a loss of brain matter equal to 10 to 20 years of aging.

Twenty-six patients with chronic back pain were matched to a group of 26 people without back pain. Researchers found that the patients with back pain experienced brain shrinkage up to 1.3 cubic centimeters per year and the longer the pain, the more brain matter the patients lost. The rate of atrophy was approximately 11 percent for each year of chronic pain; normal brain loss without chronic back pain is approximately 0.5 percent per year.

According to Northwestern University’s Dr. Vania Apkarian, the study’s lead researcher, there is still some question as to whether or not the brain loss associated with back pain is permanent. “It is possible that some of the observed decreased gray matter shown in this study reflects tissue shrinkage without substantial neuronal loss, suggesting that proper treatment would reverse this portion of the decreased brain matter,” he said in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The reason for this relationship between loss of grey matter and back pain is still uncertain, although the researchers believe that it may be associated with the negative mood and stress associated with persistent pain. They also have not been able to determine yet if the loss is permanent or if it is reversible, nor do they know if persistent chronic back pain can reduce the responsiveness to medical treatment.

Fortunately ergonomics can reduce the risk of developing back pain and help workers who already have back pain manage it. Even something as simple as changing working posture through an adjustable computer chair, workstation or taking breaks, can make a difference for a worker with, or without, pain. To learn more about working posture and ergonomics, see How Chairs Make Us Sit in The Ergonomics ReportTM, available on-line at

Sources: Journal of Neuroscience; WebMD; The Ergonomics ReportTM