27/04/2015 Gavin

The evolution of back pain?

Do you have a back like a chimpanzee?  I don’t mean hairy.  I mean, do you have low back pain due to disc herniations/prolapse because your spine is closer in evolutionary terms to a chimpanzee than it is to your fellow non-back-pain-suffering humans?  I think I do.  Here’s why…


  1. I had Schmorl’s nodes detected in my lower back when I had a disc problem in my early 20’s.
  2. My Dad has long arms, his palms face backwards and he used to do an amazing impression of a chimp for my brother and me when we were kids (and I have inherited this ability, which used to delight my own children but I suspect now would be ill-advised).

Here’s the connection.  The journal “BMC Evolutionary Biology” has just published a study comparing the spines of humans with lower back disc problems with the spines of chimpanzees, orangutans and healthy humans.  The presence of Schmorl’s nodes (a defect where the disc meets the vertebral bone) was higher in humans with back pain who had vertebrae closer in shape to the vertebrae of the apes than to the shape of healthy humans.  It seems some of us have not evolved fully to bipedalism, and consequently are more at risk of our discs going wrong.

So, you really can blame your parents (and their parents, and theirs, etc….).  The authors do not comment on whether spending more of your day on all fours than you do upright would solve your problems.  Strange that when your back “really goes” badly, you end up on all fours, crawling around.  Makes you think, eh?

And my advice – enjoy the similarities between us and the other great apes, and think of the benefits of our level of evolution.  Maybe in another couple of hundred thousand years, there will be much less back pain around?  In the meantime, if you’d like help with your poorly evolved spine, drop me a line.

[email protected]


Plomp, K.A., Viðarsdóttir, U.S., Weston, D.A., Dobney, K., Collard, M., 2015. The ancestral shape hypothesis: an evolutionary explanation for the occurrence of intervertebral disc herniation in humans. BMC Evolutionary Biology 15, 68. doi:10.1186/s12862-015-0336-y
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