Is My Back Pain Caused by My Diet?

Degenerative Disc Disease May Be Linked to Diet

What if low back pain was part of a more widespread problem?  There is some evidence that suggests that low back pain maybe in part caused by cholesterol blockages in the arteries (atherosclerosis) that supply the bones and intra-vertebral discs of the low back.  Its possible that "Degenerative Disc Disease" is really just another manifestation of vascular atherosclerosis.  Just like "Angina" (chest pain) is a sign that the cardiac arteries are suffering from atherosclerotic blockages, low back pain may be a warning that there is narrowing of the arteries coming off the aorta headed to the low back.

Here's a question?  Would you treat someone with cardiac angina solely with drugs aimed at relieving the pain, or would you recognize that angina is just a symptom of a bigger problem, atherosclerosis.  If you could reverse the atherosclerosis, then the chest angina would get better.  Regarding back pain, no trial has been done yet. Though I think its possible that if one could reverse the atherosclerosis of those arteries supplying the lumbar spine, then perhaps what we call degenerative disc disease could be halted.  Could changes that already have occurred in the discs or bones be reversed?  I'm not sure.  But since most people have multiple levels of bone and disc degeneration, it might possible to halt the process so that new levels don't degenerate.  It could prevent future episodes of low back pain.  

The treatment of chronic back pain is frustrating for patients and physicians.  Often surgeries don't work and pain medications are inadequate. Maybe part of the problem is that the approach so far has been shortsighted, focused on the end product rather than the cause. 

Check out a couple of articles looking at the relationship between atherosclerosis and low back pain:

1)  Disc degeneration/back pain and calcification of the abdominal aorta. A 25-year follow-up study in Framingham.

Spine. 1997 Jul 15;22(14):1642-7

Conclusion: Advanced aortic atherosclerosis, presenting as calcific deposits in the posterior wall of the aorta, increases a person's risk for development of disc degeneration and is associated with the occurrence of back pain

2)  Prevalence of stenotic changes in arteries supplying the lumbar spine. A postmortem angiographic study on 140 subjects

Annuals of Rheumatic Diseases 1997; 56:591-595

Conclusion:  The study shows that the lumbar and middle sacral arteries frequently become obliterated by atheromatous lesions during adult life, and that obliteration of these arteries is more common in subjects with a history of chronic back pain than in those without.

Can You Reverse Atherosclerosis?

Yes,  Dr. Dean Ornish looked at reversing atherosclerosis over 10 years ago in the Lifestyle Heart Trial in 1998.  He asked patients make dramatic diet changes by going on a 10% fat vegetarian diet.  He asked them to exercise moderately (mostly walking).  He asked them to quit smoking and to learn some stress management techniques.  Those patients who made the most dramatic changes in diet, had the most benefit and all of them saw their arteries opening up.  Those patients who made just a few dietary changes, had little to no benefit.  All of those that continued to eat their normal diet saw their arteries getting more and more clogged with atherosclerosis.

Numbers 1 and 2 are the most important.

1)  If you smoke, stop immediately.

2)  Change your diet dramatically.

3) Do moderate exercise, which could be walking 30 to 60 minutes a day.

  1. 4)Improve your ability to deal with stress by learning a relaxation program, something like Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, or biofeedback.

Dr. Ornish has a number of books, his latest is:

The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health

available through and other sellers.       

This information is from his article in Jama from 1998,  Intensive Lifestyle Changes for Reversal of Coronary Heart Disease,

Is Diet Enough?

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn in his research suggested that its diet alone is enough.  He has good evidence that adherence to a low fat vegetarian diet predictably leads to the reversal of atherosclerosis.

Visit Dr. Esselstyn’s website.  You’ll find information about his book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease” and links to his articles.  You’ll also find an hour long video in his media section. 

So back to the original question?  Will changing your diet make your back pain better?  I'm not sure.   Does it have the potential to keep it from getting worse?  My opinion after reading the various studies, is yes.  For most people, back pain is a chronic relapsing problem.  It comes, and it goes, but its almost guaranteed to come back at some point.  Well, maybe its not guaranteed if you change something about yourself-- perhaps it won't come back.

My suggestions for reduction in atherosclerosis no matter where it is located, from the arteries around the brain, to the arteries of your heart, to your low back or your feet is the same.  The only diet that has been systematically studied in its ability to reverse atherosclerosis is a low fat vegetarian diet.   This is what I suggest.  Show me another diet with similar research and I'll promote it as well.

For information on this kind of diet check out the links on my web-page on Diet