THE SLEEP OF THE JUST

I often suffer from backache probably due to my age and lack of exercise. Alas, due to the fact that I sit in my office for most of the day reading manuscripts, answering the telephone and writing. Well, I have come to the conclusion that physical activity should be practiced more often and on a regular basis, otherwise, with the passage of time my back will get worse. One thing I do though, which seems helpful, is going to bed early although I never sleep more than an interrupted seven hours. However, the good news is that we are now told by scientists that if we want to avoid a bad back we must try to get a good night’s sleep, for they have discovered that our spinal discs have a 24-hour body clock that can cause debilitating pain when it gets out of synch.

More than 80 per cent of British people suffer from back pain during their lives – and the findings suggest nightshift workers could be particularly prone. It also suggests painkillers may be more effective at certain times of the day. The body clock – or circadian rhythm – is a 24-hour cycle in the psychological processes of humans, animals and plants. Previous research has linked problems with the cycles to cancer, heart disease, type-2 diabetes and obesity – but this research is the first to show a connection to back pain.

Ageing and inflammation are major causes of disc degeneration and lower back pain and the study found that both cause body-clock malfunctions. The researchers said getting a good night’s sleep would protect the body clock and help to avoid disc problems in the future. Avoiding night shifts – or working six hours rather than a flexible rota – will also help.

Dr Quig-Jun-Meng, of Manchester University said: ‘It’s been known for years that as a consequence of the daily activity and resting cycle we are taller in the mornings by up to two centimetres more than when we go to bed. The discovery of body clocks in the disc may go some way to explain for the first time the science behind this rhythmic physiology of the spine. Our research shows the system is regulated by our internal body clock and when the body clock ceases to work properly during ageing or in shift workers, lower back pain is more likely. Looking after your body clock will help manage or delay the onset of your back pain.’

The research, reported in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, found a 25-hour body clock in the disc tissue of mice and in human disc cells. Professor Judith Hoyland said: ‘If you remove the body clock from cells in the disc in mice, within six months degeneration is very noticeable and the disc is thinner by 20 to 30 per cent. Within 12 months we found evidence of fibrosis – the thickening and scarring of connective tissues prevalent in human degenerative discs. This accelerated ageing of the disc in a “clockless” model indicates having a robust body will help slowdown spinal ageing and associated spinal diseases.’

Dr Natalie Carter of Arthritis Research UK, which funded the study, said: ‘This research is a significant breakthrough in our understanding of lower back pain. Many people find that their symptoms get worse at certain times of the day and the results of this study reveal a likely biological basis to this effect. Living in pain day in and day out can have a devastating impact on peoples’ lives, effecting their independence, mobility and ability to stay in work. An exciting prospect is that it may be possible to use this new information to improve treatments and pain relief for people affected by this debilitating condition.’

After reading what the scientists have found, all that’s left for me to say is anything that may relieve back pain is worth thinking about even if it turns out to be a game for a laugh.

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