Background: Recently, the MRI finding of "Modic changes" has been identified as pathologic spinal condition that probably reflects a vertebral inflammatory process (VIP), which coincides with spinal pain in most. We hypothesized that heavy smoking in combination with macro- or repeated microtrauma could lead to VIP. The objectives were to investigate if combinations of self-reported heavy smoking, hard physical work, and overweight would be more strongly linked with VIP than with other spinal conditions, such as degenerated discs and non-specific low back pain (LBP).
Methods: Secondary analysis was made of a data base pertaining to a population-based cross-sectional study. A population-generated cohort of 412 40-yr old Danes provided questionnaire information on smoking, weight, height, type of work, and LBP. MRI was used to determine the presence/absence of disc degeneration and of VIP. Associations were tested between three explanatory variables (type of work, smoking, and body mass index) and four outcome variables (LBP in the past year, more persistent LBP in the past year, disc degeneration, and VIP). Associations with these four outcome variables were studied for each single explanatory variable and for combinations of two at a time, and, finally, in a multivariable analysis including all three explanatory variables.
Results: There were no significant associations between the single explanatory variables and the two pain variables or with disc degeneration. However, VIP was found in 15% of non-smokers vs. 26% of heavy smokers. Similarly, VIP was noted in 11% of those in sedentary jobs vs. 31% of those with hard physical work. Further, the prevalence of VIP in those, who neither smoked heavily nor had a hard physical job was 13%, 25% in those who either smoked heavily or had a hard physical job, and 41% in those who both smoked heavily and worked hard. The odds ratio was 4.9 (1.6-13.0) for those who were both heavy smokers and had a hard physical job as compared to those who were classified as "neither". Similar but weaker findings were noted for the combination of overweight and hard physical work but not for the combination of smoking and overweight.
Conclusion: Hard physical work in combination with either heavy smoking or overweight is strongly associated with VIP. If this finding can be reproduced in other studies, it may have consequences in relation to both primary and secondary prevention of LBP, because blue collar workers, who are most likely to experience the consequences of LBP, also are those who are most likely to smoke.