MONDAY, Jan. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Overweight and obese adults are at significantly increased risk for lumbar spine disc degeneration, a potential cause of low back pain, researchers say.

Previous research has linked having a higher body-mass index (BMI), which is a measurement that takes into account a person's height and weight, to reports of low back pain. This type of pain can affect physical and mental well-being, limit mobility, reduce quality of life and is associated with substantial financial costs for both the patient and the health care system.

The new study included more than 1,000 men and nearly 1,600 women aged 21 and older from southern China. Overall, 73 percent of the participants had lumbar disc degeneration, but the condition was more common in men than women (76 percent vs. 71 percent) and more prevalent among older people, according to the study in the new issue of the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.

Seven percent of the study participants were underweight, 48 percent were in the normal weight range, 36 percent were overweight and 9 percent were obese, the investigators noted.

"Our research confirms that with elevated BMI there is a significant increase in the extent and global severity of disc degeneration. In fact, end-stage disc degeneration with narrowing of the disc space was more pronounced in obese individuals," Dr. Dino Samartzis, of the University of Hong Kong, said in a journal news release.

As people gain weight, disc degeneration may begin to occur due to physical loading on the disc, the study authors suggested. In addition, fat cells may play a role by causing chronic low-grade inflammation, they noted.

"Since overweight and obesity are worldwide concerns whose prevalence continues to rise, our study's findings have considerable public health implications. If these issues continue to plague society, they can further affect spine health leading to low back pain and its consequences," Samartzis said.

Disc degeneration is a complex process and future studies that investigate risk factors for the condition should take into account the effects of being overweight or obese, the researchers recommended.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases has more about back pain.